No ’urgency' in planning to survey Vermont schools for PCBs

Published: Oct. 23, 2020 at 6:23 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - The Burlington School District says it could take up to five months to identify the specific source of PCBs that forced officials to close Burlington High School last month and up to three years to complete mitigation measures. Meanwhile, state health officials say they are taking a measured approach to address levels of the toxic chemical in other Vermont schools.

“It is something we are not ignoring by any means,” Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said Friday. He says state officials are coming up with a plan but right now those discussions are happening behind closed doors.

“This is a very big project, if you will, and requires a lot of thoughtfulness. It would require some funding and discussions with the Legislature, as well,” Levine said. “There needs to be a grander plan, if you will, but I would say that it does not need to occur with urgency.”

Health officials did act with urgency to recommend closing Burlington High School after elevated levels of PCBs were found there. Levine says after recent conversations with the EPA’s environmental experts, the Health Department now has reason to believe the situation at Burlington High School is unique. “There does seem to be something very special that has gone on in Burlington,” Levine said. But he says they won’t know why until consultants complete more testing.

Vt. State Toxicologist Sarah Vose says it’s the PCB levels in the high school’s F building of between 160 and 6,300 nanograms per cubic meter that are most puzzling for her and her peers. “Some colleagues who are very familiar with PCBs in the indoor air of schools have never seen levels that high,” she said.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: How can you be so sure other schools won’t have the same issues?

Sarah Vose: We really don’t know what’s in other schools until they are tested or assessed... ...I understand the question of why isn’t it moving quicker, but I have to go back and say this was just identified just over a month ago. We are working as quickly as we can to get more information up our management chain so they can look at how to guide schools that are asking these questions.

Vose says only four schools' air quality was tested as part of a 2013 pilot study. They included Barre Town Elementary, Holland Elementary, Champlain Elementary, and Mount Anthony Union High School. Out of all the samples taken in each school, Vose says none of the results showed concerning PCB levels. But Vose says those results can’t necessarily be applied to all Vermont schools.

Vose says state agencies are developing a guidance document which they’ll distribute to districts when finished. There’s no word on when that may be.

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