Vt. health officials present school PCB testing protocols to lawmakers

Published: Feb. 17, 2022 at 5:51 PM EST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2022 at 7:08 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont health officials Thursday outlined to lawmakers what the options are for the hundreds of schools in the state that will be tested for PCB contamination in the coming weeks.

After months of deliberations, Vermont this month launched a first-of-its-kind program to address PCB contamination in the state’s schools. Starting this spring, every school constructed or renovated between 1960 and 1979 must complete the testing by July of 2024 -- an estimated 300 schools.

Vermont is the first state in the nation to require PCB testing in schools following a law that went into effect this past summer. The rules come on the heels of the closure of Burlington High School in 2020 following the discovery of the carcinogen in air samples.

PCBs were commonly used in building materials and electrical equipment before they were banned by the EPA in 1980. They have been linked to a variety of adverse health effects including cancer and effects on the immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Vt. Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine Thursday told the Senate Committee on Education that if sampling reveals a school has levels of PCBs that exceed the state’s new standards, school district leaders can choose to respond in several ways, and that the state will help them make those decisions. He says once testing is complete, each school will get an individualized letter with the results. They will then have a window of time to consult with the state on the next steps.

“That’s where you have this ability to investigate the source and understand what remediation would entail over a time period. The time period might be in the highest risk schools only six weeks but in the lower risk schools, up to a year,” Levine said.

He says only immediate action will happen if a portion of a school has contamination three times higher than the allowed limit. In that case, everyone must stop using just that part of the building.

It could cost Vermont districts millions of dollars to address the PCB remediation and the state hasn’t yet determined exactly how it can help defray the costs.

Lawmakers have so far only allocated $4.5 million for the testing phase. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimates actual cleanup costs could run from $50,000 to $200,000 per school, with some extreme cases going as high as $18 million.

Education Secretary Dan French also testified before the Senate committee and urged lawmakers to start exploring funding options now. “My sense is this is going to be a large effort and it would be prudent for us to get used to putting money towards it,” he said.

The Vermont Superintendents Association says the state hasn’t yet directly communicated with districts about remediation costs because districts won’t know the price tag until after the tests are completed.

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