Scott proposes PCB testing slowdown as Vermont schools struggle to keep up

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VtDigger

Published: 01-16-2024 1:17 PM

Two weeks before this school year, testing discovered elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, the carcinogens known as PCBs, at Bellows Falls Union High School. 

Since then, Andrew Haas, superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, has received a crash course in PCB testing and remediation, and the state’s program to support both. His verdict?

“We’re building the airplane as we’re flying it,” he told lawmakers in Vermont’s House Committee on Education earlier this month.

More than two years since the Legislature created the PCB testing program, the state has sampled almost a third of Vermont schools built before 1980, when building materials were most likely to contain the toxins. In 35 of those 96 schools, testing has discovered PCBs at a level that mandates action. Testing is scheduled to wrap up in 2027.

Now, the Agency of Natural Resources’s Department of Environmental Conservation is recommending that the state slow down the pace of PCB testing. In testimony on Thursday, Julie Moore, the agency’s secretary, proposed sampling an additional 65 schools through June 2025, a rate that would use up the remaining money allocated to testing and initial mitigation and remediation if schools continue to discover the toxins at the expected rate.

For schools where high levels of PCBs have been detected, the testing program has proven a source of anxiety. A handful of schools have had to navigate facility closures and costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to support short-term fixes, drawing on $4.5 million in state funds for testing and $32 million set aside by the Legislature for remediation — half of which is already obligated to support the demolition of Burlington High School. 

Concerned about the unintended consequences and unexpected costs of the current program, House lawmakers last year passed H.486, which would pause PCB testing altogether. But facing opposition from both Senate leaders and the Scott administration — who have stressed the urgency of discovering and remediating cancer-causing toxins — the bill appears unlikely to pass. 

With PCB testing ongoing, and 228 schools to go, the House education committee called upon principals and superintendents whose schools contain PCBs to share their experiences. 

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Some detailed contradictory information they’d heard about whether or not the state would fully pay for remediation. All bemoaned the new stress passed on to teachers and students alike. 

A first round of PCB testing at North County Union High School in Newport discovered elevated levels of the carcinogens. The school received 200 carbon filters for about $100,000 to help ease the problem, Chris Young, North Country’s principal, told lawmakers last week.  

But further testing showed higher, rather than lower, levels of PCBs. 

“It didn’t make any sense that some levels would go up,” Young said. Additional test results, he opined, “still don’t really make sense.”

The situation has left Young weighing questions “as to what might cause more harm to students”: either spending time in classrooms “with PCBs that are present and have been present since the beginning of time here,” or “to go remote, which we know there is harm that is caused to students if we have to close the building or parts of the building.”

In Bellows Falls, where testing uncovered PCBs this summer, district officials scrambled to plan for the school year days before students arrived. 

“We don’t have a Macy’s in our area,” Andrew Haas, superintendent of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, said in testimony, a reference to Burlington school district’s use of a closed department store as a temporary replacement for its PCB-ridden high school. 

One solution Bellows Falls landed on was using tents to create new learning spaces. Staff joked that the school “looked like a wedding venue,” Haas recalled.  

Kelly O’Ryan, principle of Bellows Falls Union, called the situation a “constant source of stress” and “full-time job.”

Like North Country, Bellows Falls used carbon filters to mitigate risk. But the noisy machines drowned out the school’s public address system, O’Ryan said. And even with efforts to reduce PCB levels, a few students pulled out of school due to safety concerns. 

“We are being tasked with an impossible mandate,” she said.

The school officials present voiced support for pausing the PCB testing program. But for the schools already tested, a pause would make little difference. 

“You can’t unring that bell,” Haas said. 

Mark Tucker, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union superintendent, described the urgency imposed on the schools affected. 

“It now feels like a race to get what we need,” he said.

‘The mother of all unfunded mandates’

On Thursday, Moore, the natural resources secretary, presented the House education committee with a plan that would fund and slightly slow the pace of testing through June 2025. The agency’s projections indicated it could test 65 more schools in that time and fund the immediate mitigation and remediation needs of those schools if seven discover actionable levels of PCBs. 

In order to support the work, the state would use more than $10 million in remaining funds. Moore also proposed that the Legislature use this year’s budget adjustment act to move $3.5 million from elsewhere in the agency’s budget to fund PCB-related work.

“This is an attempt to match our pace to the resources available,” Moore told legislators. “I don’t believe we currently have the resources available needed to see this effort through to completion.”

As part of the agency’s plan, Moore said it had revised its testing schedule, pushing the highest-risk schools to the front and bumping private schools that don’t serve as the local public option to the end of the list. 

Lawmakers praised the additional information provided by Moore but emphasized their qualms with the existing system.

“Am I correct in saying this is really to handle the immediate mitigation of PCBs and does not speak to the long-term costs of required abatement?” Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, the committee’s chair, asked Moore, who confirmed the near-term nature of the program.

Continuing on the same path, Conlon suggested, might lead to increased burdens on the education fund at a time when the governor has already deemed education tax increases unacceptable.

“This could be the mother of all unfunded mandates,” Conlon said, “and the cost of this could significantly increase property taxes for Vermonters.”

Other lawmakers underscored the unintended consequences of PCB testing they’d heard about from educators the week prior. Closing classrooms, turning into HVAC experts and wrestling with unknown costs have placed new burdens on an already beleaguered public education system, they said.

“The impact that we know is happening in schools is significantly different than what the intent is,” said Rep. Erin Brady, D-Williston, who works as a teacher. 

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine, who also testified before the committee Thursday, agreed.

“I have no arguments with you,” he said.