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Schools struggle with water regulation

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February 5, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS, CYRUS LEVESQUE AND MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Several Addison County schools will be asking local voters on Town Meeting Day to borrow up to $25,000 for federally mandated water system improvements.

At issue are provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act that require public schools to have water disinfection systems wipe out any impurities that might be found during regular water tests.

“The goal is to oversee safe delivery of water from the source to the end-user tap,” said Tim Raymond, water systems operations manager for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Water Supply Division.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Vermont have defined a “public drinking water system” as one that serves 20 or more people for more than 60 days of the year. Public schools fit within the definition and are under particular scrutiny — not only because of the young population they serve, but because their water systems can remain idle for long stretches, particularly during the summer.

School districts that are patched into municipal water systems are generally deemed to be in compliance with the statewide rule. But the DEC has spent the last several months sizing up disinfection needs for schools that have their own water systems. Raymond explained that each school is assigned a “score” to determine how swiftly it needs to install its disinfection system, which can either use chlorine or ultraviolet light to purify water at a moment’s notice.

In the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU), voters in the towns of Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury and Weybridge will be asked to borrow up to $25,000 for disinfection systems for their respective elementary schools. Their deadlines for compliance range from Sept. 1, 2007, for Weybridge and Salisbury to Dec. 1, 2008 for Ripton. Cornwall has until April 1, 2008.

Leicester Central School is the only school in the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union that has been affected by the mandate, since all the others are connected to town systems.

According to RNeSU Business Manager Brenda Fleming, the Leicester school is currently working with the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources to get a water disinfection system installed on-site.

“I’m hopeful we’ll be doing the construction this summer,” she said.

In the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union no schools will have to make changes as a result of the new regulations. According to Superintendent Evelyn Howard, all schools in the district are either on municipal water systems or already made the change in previous years.

Monkton Central School does face a water quality problem unrelated to the regulation issues at the other schools. It has had problems with coliform contamination off and on for more than two years. Though harmless itself, according to Principal Rich Jesset, it may be a warning sign for other problems, so school officials have often resorted to bottled water. They soon expect to get a grant to repair their water system over the summer, and taking care of that would meet state requirements for the Safe Drinking Water Act as well.

There’s a very good chance that taxpayers in the affected school districts will not have to pay back their loans.

A Vermont State Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund is offering money at very low interest rates top help public and private entities finance their water disinfection systems. But applicants can see their entire loan (of up to $25,000) forgiven when and if they can show that their disinfection systems comply with the state and federal water quality rules.

It could be awhile before some eligible towns see their loans forgiven, however.

Sharon Stearns, business manager for the ACSU, noted the state’s water revolving loan fund receives around $8 million a year. But there are currently $33 million on requests for loans.

ACSU Superintendent Lee Sease said the water disinfection system requirement has drawn criticism from school board officials who already have a lot of issues on their plates.

“I would say the reaction at the board level has been exasperation,” Sease said. “Here is one more mandate. They are struggling with budgeting, and here is one more thing they have to address. There has been some questioning of this requirement.”

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