Education

Lawmakers release emergency cash for PCB mitigation in schools

State officials will release $2.5 million to mitigate PCBs as a statewide testing effort kicks into gear. The campaign began after officials found high levels of PCBs in Burlington High School in 2020, which forced students out of the school and into a retrofitted mall. File photo by Mark Johnson/VTDigger

Lawmakers voted Monday to release $2.5 million in emergency funds to mitigate a harmful class of chemicals in schools, as a statewide testing initiative ramps up. 

The Vermont Emergency Board, which is composed of the governor and four state lawmakers, unanimously approved a request from three state officials to ease the burden on schools that discover polychlorinated biphenyls, often known as PCBs, in their buildings.

Mitigation steps “need to be taken as quickly as possible in order to get to that permanent solution, which is remediation,” Secretary of Natural Resources Julie Moore, who made the request alongside Secretary of Education Dan French and Health Commissioner Mark Levine, told lawmakers Monday afternoon. 

The $2.5 million will allow the state to buy “mitigation supplies” such as air filters. Officials plan to buy that equipment shortly, instead of risking supply chain delays by “waiting until the need is identified on a site-specific basis.”

Those dollars will also “provide cost-share to schools to conduct additional investigation and required materials testing,” according to the state’s plan.

It’s not exactly clear how schools can apply for funds for that investigation. But under the cost-sharing agreement, the state would fund 80% of the additional investigation and testing while schools would fund 20%. State officials estimated that the total costs for those processes could run from $30,000 to $75,000 per school. 

Officials took care to note that the money could not be used for remediation. That will be paid for from another chunk of $32 million that the legislature set aside this spring. 

Vermont is currently engaged in a landmark effort to test hundreds of schools for PCBs, which are linked to serious health problems including cancer and damage to the immune and nervous systems. 

The campaign began after officials found high levels of PCBs in Burlington High School in 2020, which forced students out of the school and into a retrofitted mall. 

In the wake of that move, state lawmakers voted in 2021 to mandate PCB testing in roughly 350 Vermont schools built or renovated before 1980.

In November, Burlington voters will consider a $165 million bond to build a new PCB-free high school. 

Meanwhile, state officials are stepping up their multi-year-long testing initiative. So far, that campaign has turned up PCBs in two places: Cabot School and Oak Grove School, in Brattleboro.

Oak Grove’s PCB concentration was relatively low, meaning that students were not required to move, although the school will eventually need remediation. But Cabot School’s levels were high enough to force the closure of the school’s gymnasium. 

Mark Tucker, the superintendent of Caledonia Central Supervisory Union, which includes Cabot, has expressed concern with the remediation process. 

“We were surprised to learn yesterday that the State doesn’t actually have plans in place for testing and remediation beyond the airborne testing that has been done so far,” he wrote in an Aug. 23 email to community members.

Tucker also appealed to lawmakers for help, saying in an email that “resolving this problem is beyond the financial capacity of the Cabot School District,” according to Seven Days. 

On Monday, Tucker told VTDigger that the Emergency Board’s decision “helps.”

“80% funding for our immediate costs is better than 0%,” he wrote in an email. 

In Burlington, school officials are seeking PCB remediation funds through another process: litigation. Earlier this month, Burlington School District officials announced plans to file a lawsuit against Monsanto, a longtime PCB manufacturer, in hopes of lessening “the impacts on taxpayers for costs they should not have to bear,” Burlington Superintendent Tom Flanagan said.  

State officials are also considering legal action. 

“I've read that at least one school district is taking Monsanto to court,” said Emergency Board member Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, in Monday’s meeting, apparently in reference to Burlington. “And it does occur to me sitting here that having a whole lot of lawsuits all around the state is probably not very efficient. So I hope that at some point, we think about maybe a state initiative in this direction.”

“We are,” Gov. Phil Scott replied, adding later, “But we’re not here to announce that today.”

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Peter D'Auria

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