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Vermont House Education Committee takes testimony on delaying deadline for school PCB testing

Burlington High School, Burlington, Vermont
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington High School buildings slated for demolition due to high levels of PCB's

After the Burlington school district was forced to permanently close its high school and technical center buildings due to PCB contamination, the Vermont legislature passed a bill mandating all schools test for PCBs. The House Education Committee is considering a bill that would delay the deadline to complete testing by two years, and has been hearing testimony throughout the month.

In 2021 the governor signed Act 74, which appropriated $4.5 million for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to work with the Department of Health and Agency of Education to complete PCB air quality testing in all public and approved independent schools built before 1980. The deadline was July 1, 2024.

In early March, state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine testified before the committee about how the agency set the levels included in the testing protocols.

“We based the school action levels on the non-cancer health effects for students and staff and these are calculated using a toxicity value, which is a measure of potency of PCBs to cause health effects. This toxicity value is combined with exposure estimates of how many hours, how many days and years students and staff may be present inside a school and take into account exposures to PCBs from sources other than the air in the schools.”

The committee is considering extending the testing deadline two years. Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Peter Walke told the committee that testing is expected to begin by summer but cautioned that schools may need additional help from the legislature if PCBs are detected.

“PCBs in indoor air now constitutes what we consider a hazardous material release, which does create an obligation to clean it up if it’s discovered. A school would then be obligated to clean it up. If we’re going to launch into this testing this spring and summer with the highest priority schools first, which are those who are most likely to test above standards, there are schools that are going to need help sooner than you are going to have the ability to help them if that option is not available by the end of this legislative session.”

At one of the Education Committee meetings, Vermont Superintendents Association Executive Director Jeffrey Francis stressed the need for funding mechanisms if testing detects PCBs in a school.

“We are entirely in support of the delay to 2026 in order to both inform this program as it evolves but also make sure that we have a well-crafted response plan. With regard to the issue of funding I think that it’s extremely important, and I’ll emphasize extremely important, that local school districts know that they have a backstop if actionable levels of PCBs are identified.”

According to Commissioner Walke, Vermont is the only state currently requiring all schools be tested for PCBs.

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