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Almost all Vermont schools to be tested for PCBs

Published: Jul. 30, 2021 at 4:53 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - In the wake of Burlington High School’s PCB contamination, almost all Vermont schools will face state-mandated sampling for the carcinogen as early as September.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation oversees the safety of all building materials in the state, including those used in schools. Officials say those school buildings that were built or renovated before 1980 will require review -- about 300 schools statewide. To accomplish the review, officials say they will be developing a kind of checklist to identify potential sources of PCBs.

PCBs are usually found in building products including caulking, paint, fluorescent light ballasts, window glazing, ceiling tiles, spray-on fireproofing, floor finish, and mastics.

The DEC will ask schools to remove fluorescent light ballasts, which are one of the most common sources. Some schools have already done this. Once that has been completed, officials say consultants will sample the air in at least 30% of the rooms in the school -- all spaces with a variety of uses. That data will be sent to the Department of Health for review. If the results are above Vermont’s screening value, the district will work with both departments to develop a mitigation plan.

In Vermont, the standard requires no more than 15 nanograms per cubic meter, a much stricter standard than the EPA’s 100 to 600 nanograms per cubic meter based on the age of students exposed. For context, Burlington High School’s highest results reached 7,100 nanograms per cubic meter.

The plan could require renovation -- or in extreme cases like Burlington High School -- demolition and reconstruction of a new school.

The state will pay for the air testing expenses with $4.5 million that has been set aside. It is expected to cost upwards of $20,000 per school. Local taxpayers will be expected to front the cost for testing the actual building materials and any repairs. The DEC is recommending districts budget between $10,000 and $300,000 per school just to test building materials, with an additional $50,000 to $200,000 for the repairs. In a worst-case scenario, the price tag might be as high as $1-to-18 million. And if schools don’t comply, the DEC can sue them.

Districts may apply for state and federal money for expensive repairs so that taxpayers don’t foot the entire bill. That’s something Burlington leaders are considering right now.

Act 72, a new law approved this year could cover some school construction costs.

Before the Burlington High School problems cropped up last fall, PCB contamination in older schools was not much of a priority. A pilot program in 2013 looked at four schools spread out in the state and none of them had high levels of PCBs.

School districts are expected to get a questionnaire from DEC in the coming weeks to get baseline information the state doesn’t have, including the age and configuration of buildings. Districts are also expected to get more guidance from lawmakers next legislative session. All of the sampling must be completed by August 2024.

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