Burlington High School families livid over state’s PCB do-over

Published: Nov. 19, 2021 at 5:32 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Many Burlington High School parents say they are frustrated and furious after the health department this week lowered the bar on PCB recommendations for Vermont schools.

The state this week said they were changing their guidance on what officials consider safe levels of PCBs in schools. Burlington High School last year was forced to permanently close its campus after samples of the potentially cancer-causing chemical found in air samples were thought to have exceeded state screening levels. But now many families are arguing that the state unnecessarily alarmed families and educators about the real risks.

“Angry, disappointed, sad, confused. Seeing my daughter watch the news and tear up and say, ‘What? you mean they didn’t have to close my school after all?’” said Johanne Yordan, whose daughter spent her first two years of high school in Burlington. But she wasn’t willing to spend her last two in a former Macy’s and transferred to neighboring Colchester High School. “We’re happy there, but we wouldn’t be there if it was not for what happened here at Burlington High School.”

Still, the situation isn’t as simple as students and staff returning to BHS. “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to the same old same old? But the reality is there’s been so much change in her life and in other kids’ lives, it’s just too much moving around,” Yordan said.

“This is probably the worst scandal in Vermont since Jay Peak. It’s incredible that this has happened and a thousand kids have suffered,” said Dan Cunningham, a BHS parent. For more than a year, Cunningham and a group of 125 BHS parents have condemned the health department’s strict PCB guidance that ultimately influenced the district’s decision to shut down the campus.

Now, families know the PCB contamination in most of the buildings is below the state’s new “school action level” of 100 nanograms per cubic meter. State officials, including health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and state toxicologist Sarah Vose, for months stood by the notion that even 15 nanograms per cubic meter is dangerous. They now conclude it’s common to find that amount of PCBs in any indoor air environment, which means most schools would have exceeded the previous recommendation and therefore require pricey fixes.

“They held one school in the nation to a standard that they created on their own. They introduced all this anxiety, fear, disruption into people’s lives, effectively over nothing,” Cunningham said.

Burlington Superintendent Tom Flanagan and School Board Chair Clare Wool tell WCAX they were also surprised to hear about the report because the state didn’t give them a heads up. They say they don’t know yet how this information will impact the future of BHS. “We have a lot to digest, a lot to work with experts who understand this a lot better than I do,” Flanagan said.

“We definitely need time. Potentially, that process could have happened in those two months of our shut down,” added Wool.

School leaders will be dissecting the six-page report which details the school action level calculation.

Cunningham says the state should be held accountable for Burlington’s situation. He says many parents want state toxicologist Sarah Vose and the DEC’s Trish Coppolino to resign.

The health department did not respond to a request for Dr. Levine to comment.

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