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Chemical contamination at BHS more extensive than feared

Published: Apr. 13, 2021 at 3:08 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 14, 2021 at 4:52 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Chemical contamination at Burlington High School appears to be more extensive than feared and school officials want the public to know it could be costly to clean up.

As the school district learns more about the PCB contamination there, the superintendent says the news continues to “worsen.” He plans to brief the school board Tuesday night to make sure the public is aware that the price tag for remediation could get pretty hefty.

The high school on North Avenue has been closed since September at the recommendation of state health officials. PCBs were detected in air samples throughout the campus as the district was preparing for a $70 million renovation of the complex.

“There is a serious problem in this project and we need to take action sooner rather than later,” Burlington Schools Superintendent Tom Flanagan said.

Since then, consultants have been working to determine the sources and extent of the PCB contamination. The dangerous chemicals have so far been found in caulking, light fixtures, floor tiles and even deep in the concrete.

The school district hopes to determine the full extent of the contamination and the expense of the remediation through a targeted cleanup of small areas of the school. That pilot project will begin soon and could cost a half-million dollars. The results, expected in August, would be used to determine the cost and the timeline for the cleanup which could be $7 million-$12 million.

“I’m not convinced it is of value to students, staff or taxpayers to spend millions of dollars on remediation as we still might not get below the state’s screening threshold for airborne PCBs and would need annual monitoring which comes at an additional cost,” Flanagan said.

For now, the district is using the renovated Macy’s store downtown as its high school building and they expect students could remain there for two to three more years.

They have not yet identified a source of funding to pay for the cleanup. Taxpayers have approved spending $70 million on other renovations to BHS, so it’s possible the district could tap into those funds. But if the price tag gets too high, that whole project might need to be reconsidered.

“The cost of demolition and proper disposal will be high. I don’t think it will be quite as high as the amount of remediation that it would take to keep it legally habitable,” said Tom Peterson, the project manager.

The school district says it still doesn’t know why this building has such high levels of PCBs and so far we have not heard of any plans to conduct a statewide examination of other schools built in the same era.

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