Lessons learned from Vt. school PCB testing valuable in nationwide solution

Published: Oct. 21, 2022 at 4:56 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Personal injury lawsuits over PCBs manufactured by Monsanto are mounting. The Burlington School District announced last week it’s suing the chemical giant for damages to help cover the $165 million cost of building a new high school after the previous building was closed two years ago over contamination concerns. Now, one of the world’s leading PCB experts is bringing her knowledge to the Green Mountain State to help prevent the district’s situation from happening elsewhere.

“In the last five years, the combination of scientific understanding about the risk has dramatically improved. So, it’s become more clear to us and more urgent to us that we talk about strategies for dealing with this problem,” said Keri Hornbuckle, the director of the University of Iowa’s Superfund Research Program. It’s a group of engineers, toxicologists, and public policy experts examining airborne PCBs, specifically in schools. “My concern is not whether or not PCBs are there, but how can we reduce them to lower levels. How can we find the circumstances that are of greatest concern and strategically start to remediate those situations.”

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has hired Hornbuckle as a consultant as part of the state’s unprecedented, first-in-the-nation effort to access PCBs in all the state’s schools. Her team over the summer sought to identify which building materials emit the most PCBs into the air -- from carpets and tiles to glass block windows and spray insulation -- to give administrators the tools to predict major sources. the special technique is designed to bypass the traditional expensive testing process.

The Vermont Legislature last year passed Act 74, requiring all schools built or renovated before 1980 to test their indoor air for PCBs by 2025. About 350 schools statewide -- almost all in Vermont -- fall into that category. Since spring, the DEC has sampled a couple of dozen.

The saga began in September 2020 when the Burlington School District found PCB contamination in the nearly 1,000-student high school, ultimately deciding to permanently shutter and then demolish the campus.

Hornbuckle is confident scenarios like Burlington’s will become increasingly common and that it isn’t economically realistic for every district in the country to completely replace the estimated one-third of the country’s PCB-contaminated schools. Low-income districts that simply can’t afford to borrow millions of dollars will be the hardest hit. That’s why Hornbuckle says her priority is finding a targetted solution, and she says the data collected in Vermont is building that foundation. “Vermont’s actions at this time, their decision to measure and to use those measurements to make further decisions about remediation of schools, to think about in an organized way and with lots of information about how to do so, will have a tremendous effect on the nation,” she said.

There is no pot of money set aside to pay for mitigation measures on the federal or state level and Vermont officials agree taxpayers shouldn’t be charged with footing the entire bill. Early in the process of surveying Vermont schools, the DEC estimated districts should be prepared to pay between $10,000 to $18 million for PCB cleanup.

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