Vermont schools navigate PCB test results

Published: Nov. 21, 2023 at 6:10 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Forever chemicals are festering inside some of Vermont’s schools. PCBs were a common component in building materials used prior to 1980. They have a lot of health risks, like cancer and other illnesses.

To address the problem, the state launched a first-in-the-nation pilot program for PCBs. It’s now about a year in, with dozens of schools tasked with cleaning up the chemicals.

The story starts at Burlington High School, where high levels of PCBs were detected in 2020. Now, hundreds of students are learning in the old Macy’s building downtown while a whole new school is built.

Since then, 103 other schools have been tested for PCBs out of 324 deemed necessary. We spoke with two supervisory unions navigating finding chemicals in their buildings and the wide range of impacts they may or may not have.

“We’re going to be dealing with PCBs for quite a long time yet to come,” said Elaine Collins, the superintendent of the North Country Supervisory Union.

In one Northeast Kingdom high school, around 100 classrooms were found to have high levels of PCBs. The 60-year-old building houses 750 students from 12 towns. To mitigate, Collins says they’re using air filters and a contractor is looking to see where the PCBs are actually coming from.

“It’s going to take longer than just a summer, I think, to figure out where the PCBs are actually coming from. It’s a bit of a guessing game. It’s an educated guess, and because there are likely culprits in classrooms, but until they take out the materials that they think are off-putting PCBs and retest, it’s really just a theory,” said Collins.

Until the source and severity of the contamination are determined, the district has no idea how extensive or expensive the cleanup will be.

That’s also the case at the district’s elementary school in Brighton. Collins says the school shut down immediately last year when PCB levels were found to be too high for the young students. Short-term mitigation strategies lowered the levels for this school year, allowing the older students back in the building. However, the preschool remains offsite at a building being paid for by the state.

“The plan for preschool is to set up a modular unit and have them come back so at least they’re on the land and they can access, you know, the lunch room and specials and those kinds of things on site. But that also will take some time,” said Collins.

“We have a lot of plans in place for a variety of scenarios if needed,” said Chris Sell, the superintendent of the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union.

About 130 miles south in the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union, Sell says six of their eight schools have been tested. He says three have mild levels, mostly in spaces like closets where students aren’t present. Therefore he says the process hasn’t been disruptive yet.

“We are currently working with one of our schools around mitigation remediation as they’re beginning to identify some potential causes or PCB causes. And that’s caulking around doors or windows, which is not surprising since a lot of our schools were built prior to 1980,” said Sell.

They are also using air filters in the Poultney Elementary School, and Sell says the contractors will be removing PCB culprits over winter break.

Statewide, Patricia Coppolino of the Agency of Natural Resources says 40 of the 104 tested buildings exceed school action levels, which means they have to do some sort of mitigation, no matter how small. When action levels are detected, schools have the choice of beginning mitigation within six weeks or vacating the space.

“The results vary based on the size of the school and the impacts that they have on the school and it’s not always concentration-driven. It’s how the school can manage what the impacts are. And it’s a big impact on some small schools and some supervisory unions that have a lot of schools within their supervisory union,” said Coppolino.

Initially, the state was planning on paying 80% of the mitigation and requiring the schools to fund the other 20%. But at the end of the legislative session, it was decided that the state would reimburse the cost, with $13.5 million budgeted for remediation. With that, comes the uncertainty of the future.

“It’s hard to actually estimate what that total cost is because we don’t know what the total universe of potential impacts are to the schools. And for some of them, we don’t have costs yet to look at what those cleanup costs may be,” said Coppolino.

“North Country High School could conceivably go through all of that money just itself, and I know that there are lots of other schools that are in the same boat,” Collins said.

So who’s going to pay for PCB cleanup? So far, the Legislature has allocated just $29.5 million toward PCB testing and mitigation. Of that, $16 million is going to the Burlington School District to help with their $210 million building reconstruction. That leaves just $13.5 million for the remaining 323 schools that could have PCB contamination.

The testing program is scheduled to go until 2027, Coppolino says they’re on track with about 20 schools per quarter and expect to meet the deadline.

Some lawmakers want to pause the PCB program, concerned that districts will pay for PCB cleanup now, only to completely renovate or demolish the same space within the next few years. There are also lawmakers in the school construction task force looking to see how construction and PCB funding can work in tandem.

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