FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — The head of the U.S. Senate Environment Committee said Wednesday that legislators will hold hearings to address toxic drinking water in the nation's schools following an Associated Press probe into the widespread problem.
California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer called for the hearings to be held in Washington this year after an AP investigation revealed unsafe levels of lead, bacteria and pesticides have surfaced in the water supplies at thousands of schools.
In the last decade, contaminants have been found in drinking fountains and school pipes in all 50 states in small towns and inner cities. But the problem has gone largely unmonitored by the federal government, even as the number of water safety violations has multiplied.
Boxer, who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works that oversees the Environmental Protection Agency, has seized on the issue as a top priority, and has asked EPA officials to explain what actions they will take to protect school children from polluted water.
An EPA spokeswoman did not immediately return calls or e-mails seeking comment.
Aides for Boxer and Sen. Benjamin Cardin, a Maryland Democrat who leads a Senate subcommittee on water, attended the hour-and-a-half briefing with top EPA officials on Wednesday afternoon.
Among the issues discussed were the agency's inadequate record-keeping. The EPA only has authority to collect drinking water quality data from schools with wells, which represent 8 to 11 percent of the nation's schools.
In the past, EPA officials have said that schools with unsafe water represent a small percentage of the nation's 132,500 public and private schools. They also have said the agency has no legal power to require that all schools test their water, and can only provide guidance on environmental practices.
EPA officials acknowledge the agency's database of schools in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act is plagued with errors and omissions, however. The problem goes beyond schools that use wells since schools in Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles and other large cities that draw water from public utilities also have shown contamination.
Boxer aides were scheduled to meet with agency officials in two weeks to discuss the EPA's progress and any new legal authorities needed to protect students from toxic drinking water, said Peter Rafle, communications director for Boxer.
The hearings will include drinking water problems in schools, as well as broader problems with oversight and enforcement, he said.