Amid Air Quality Concerns, Catamount Arts Center Closes Temporarily, Cancels Indoor Programming | Arts News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Amid Air Quality Concerns, Catamount Arts Center Closes Temporarily, Cancels Indoor Programming


Published June 14, 2023 at 7:07 p.m.

Catamount Arts Center - COURTESY
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  • Catamount Arts Center
Catamount Arts in St. Johnsbury announced on Tuesday that its building at 115 Eastern Avenue will close temporarily following the discovery of environmental pollutants in the facility. Indoor programming at the Northeast Kingdom arts hub has been canceled until further notice.

Late last week, the arts center was undergoing a round of due diligence air quality testing ahead of an expansion of the Catamount Arts campus when elevated levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) were found.

In a written statement to Seven Days, Catamount Arts executive director Jody Fried said levels of these contaminants in the building “exceed the indoor air standards as determined by the state of Vermont,” thus necessitating the closure.

TCE and PCE are common dry-cleaning solvents. Authorities in St. Johnsbury cited residual chemicals from now-defunct dry cleaners on Eastern Avenue as the source of the pollutants, which have posed a problem in a number of nearby buildings in addition to Catamount Arts.

The volatile substances often begin as water contaminants, then vaporize and infect the air inside buildings in a process called vapor intrusion. Negative health effects caused by exposure to the chemicals depend on the amount of chemicals present and the length of exposure. The Center for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists kidney cancer, cardiac defects and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among the most serious risks of TCE and PCE exposure.

Fried confirmed that Catamount has canceled indoor programs at the building, including film screenings, opera and theater simulcasts, and gallery exhibitions. Administrative operations have been temporarily relocated to the Catamount ArtPort, a property in St. Johnsbury’s Green Mountain Mall which Catamount began using as a satellite performance space several years ago. Events already scheduled for the ArtPort and the York Street Meeting House will continue as planned.

Outdoor summer programming will also proceed as scheduled. This includes weekly concerts in the Levitt AMP St. Johnsbury Music Series, monthly Final Fridays street fairs and summer camps, as well as the organization’s Summer Solstice raffle and Make Music Day.

Disruptions to Catamount Arts’ programming are a definite loss to the St. Johnsbury community. Since its founding in 1975 as a small film-screening venture, Catamount has grown to offer a full slate of affordable, arts-related events throughout northeast Vermont.

Catamount moved into its current building, a former Masonic Lodge, in 2005. Founder and filmmaker Jay Craven praised the nonprofit’s current leadership for steering it to become a “crucial organization” for residents of the region. He added that “shared experience is harder to come by [in 2023],” but Catamount provides a place “where people really come together in large numbers.”

Gillian Sewake, director of Discover St. Johnsbury, noted that Catamount Arts has been “really instrumental in celebrating St. Johnsbury's identity as a creative community,” and has served as a vital partner to the town on several programs.

“We will certainly miss having the physical building open to enjoy a gallery exhibition or go to a downtown film showing,” Sewake said. “But I know that they're working on alternatives to minimize programming disruption as much as possible.”

According to St. Johnsbury Town Manager Chad Whitehead, air quality threats have been a recurring problem in town, but they are not a death sentence for buildings.

Whitehead told Seven Days that the “kickoff” of St. J’s pollutant problem occurred at the Calderwood building, then a state office building down the street from Catamount Arts. When TCE and PCE were discovered in Calderwood, the issue was quickly remediated. The building has since sold, and “a number of new businesses have opened back up into it,” Whitehead said.

Whitehead was confident in Catamount’s ability to bounce back. “The consultants working on this have got the recipe figured out,” he shared, stating that the remediation process will take place “in a matter of a couple of months, not a couple of years.”

Fried echoed this optimism. “Until further testing is completed, we really don’t know what remediation will look like or how long it will take,” he said. However, he added, thanks to the outdoor and off-site programs that remain on the schedule, “We'll be out in the community all summer long.” 

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