Burlington school leaders call on state to fund PCB contamination cleanup

Published: Sep. 18, 2020 at 6:58 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Are there harmful PCBs in your school’s air? After revelations of contamination that closed Burlington High School this week, state officials say they are still looking for answers.

“We definitively --on a state and federal level -- need to address these PCBs,” said Burlington School Board Chair Clare Wool. She argues the burden shouldn’t fall on Burlington taxpayers to pay for PCB contamination cleanup at Burlington High School. “This is not a Burlington problem.”

That’s because Wool says it’s a problem that could be present in many Vermont schools built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. “Our districts are all vulnerable to exactly what Burlington High School is going through,” Wool said.

According to Vermont State Toxicologist Sarah Vose, PCBs were used in a lot of construction materials starting in the ’50s. The EPA didn’t ban their use and manufacturing until 1979.

Wool says if it wasn’t for Burlington’s $70 million ReEnvisioning renovation project, which called for air quality testing, the district may never have known students and staff have been exposed to the potentially cancer-causing chemicals. She worries other districts may have the same issues, but haven’t made the discovery yet. “We believe this calls to question the concerns everyone should have about PCBs,” Wool said.

Governor Phil Scott Friday said the state’s schools are in uncharted territory. “I think we can narrow down what schools may be affected, what schools aren’t. We need to pay attention to this, obviously,” said Gov. Scott.

We asked him if the state will conduct widespread PCB testing in schools built during that critical time frame, and if the results show levels are elevated in those schools, will the state fund the fixes. “Too early to tell,” Scott responded. “I would imagine that would be a conversation with the legislature over the next session.” The governor says PCB testing is extensive and expensive.

But Wool says districts need government guidance on the next steps now. “We look to those experts in the Department of Health and the EPA to lead in this concern of PCBs in our schools,” she said.

WCAX News asked the Agency of Education and the Vermont Superintendents Association for the total number of schools constructed between the ’50s and ’70s. They both tell us they don’t have that information. So, we’ve asked every superintendent in the state to send us a list of the schools in their district and when they were built, and asked if the air quality in those buildings has been tested recently. We’ll let you know when we have those answers.

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