House approves a pause on Vermont’s PCB testing program

Lawmakers passed a bill Thursday that would put the state’s testing program on hold and provide up to $16 million to the Burlington School District. Photo via Oak Grove School

The Vermont House approved legislation Thursday that would pause a state initiative to test school buildings for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic chemicals linked to a series of health problems. 

The bill, H.486, would put the testing program on hold while a task force assesses the needs of Vermont’s school buildings. 

“Our students cannot afford another interruption to their learning, and the risk of closing classrooms or schools is untenable,” Rep. Erin Brady, D-Williston, told colleagues on the House floor Wednesday. “Pausing PCB testing so that this task force can do its work would allow us to more thoughtfully integrate testing for PCBs — or other toxins — with longer-term plans for our aging school infrastructure.”

If signed into law, the bill would halt the testing program just nine months after it started. Testing was expected to continue at least through 2025. 

Under the proposed legislation, schools in which testing had already begun could finish the process, and money set aside for testing and remediation would still be paid out to schools that needed it. 

But the program would be on hold until a task force — made up of lawmakers, state and local officials, and other experts — made recommendations about whether to restart it. 

The task force would also consider the state of Vermont’s schools more generally, and how any construction or renovation should be funded. 

But the bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, has voiced opposition. 

“Senator Baruth doesn’t support pausing the PCB testing program,” Ashley Moore, his chief of staff, said in a text message. “He believes it’s critical that there’s continuity in the program so the state can identify whether other schools have been impacted.”

Vermont’s first traumatic experience with PCBs in schools came in the fall of 2020, when the Burlington School District closed its high school after detecting high levels of the chemicals. 

The next year, the district moved children to a retrofitted Macy’s downtown. In November, voters approved a $165 million bond to demolish the old school building and construct a new one. 

Worried that the state’s schools harbored Burlington-level PCB concentrations, lawmakers wrote the testing program into statute in 2021. The initiative, which aims to test for the chemicals in roughly 300 Vermont school buildings — those built or renovated before 1980 — has been touted as the first of its kind in the nation.

But, for schools where high levels of PCBs have been detected, the program has proven a source of anxiety. A handful of schools have had to navigate closed facilities and costs into the tens of thousands of dollars — at a time when school budgets are already rising. 

And some critics have worried that the state’s limits on PCBs — which are stricter than limits set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency — are too low.

Last spring, the state Legislature passed Act 178, which set aside $32 million to remediate PCBs in schools. In October, the state’s Emergency Board voted to release $2.5 million for schools to respond quickly to mitigate the chemicals. 

So far, none of that money has been spent, although an unspecified amount has been earmarked for an unidentified school supervisory union, according to Patricia Coppolino, a program manager at the Department of Environmental Conservation. 

The state also expects to set aside some of that money for “an additional 3-4 (supervisory unions) and one independent school through grant awards in the next two to three weeks,” Coppolino said in an email. 

As of Wednesday, 10 schools have detected PCBs at levels that require action, according to Coppolino. The state expects that schools will have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on mitigation. 

In a report released in January, the Department of Environmental Conservation cast doubt on whether the funds set aside by the Legislature to handle PCBs would be sufficient to meet all schools’ needs.  

“Based on early results from the first schools that have been tested, it is unlikely the funding under Act 178 will be sufficient to cover the full cost of this work in every (affected) school building,” the report reads.

In brief interviews Thursday, representatives of the state’s associations of school boards, superintendents and principals said that, while they had no official position on the legislation, they approved of the House’s strategy. 

“The approach that's being taken by the House, I would say, speaking for (the Vermont Superintendents Association), makes sense,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. “Because it's organized, it seems pragmatic, it talks about best utilization of resources.”

The House bill would also set aside $16 million for the Burlington School District “for the costs of demolition and removal of PCB contamination at Burlington High School.” That provision drew criticism from one lawmaker this week. 

“I do think it's unfair and not equitable at all,” Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, said Wednesday, noting that there could be multiple other schools that might need expensive remediation.

Lawmakers rejected two amendments to the bill related to that sum. One, put forth by Higley, would have simply removed Burlington’s $16 million grant from the bill’s language.

The other was intended to force the Burlington School District to reimburse the state for the grant if it prevailed in ongoing litigation against Monsanto, the company that manufactured large volumes of PCBs until the late 1970s. 

But Thursday evening, lawmakers voted that amendment down after the chairs of the House Education Committee and the Ways and Means Committee urged the body to reject it. 

“There's a lot of discussion here that needs to happen at many legal levels,” Rep. Brady said Thursday evening after a joint meeting between the two committees.

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Peter D'Auria

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