- Alison Novak ©️ Seven Days
- Burlington superintendent Tom Flanagan at Thursday's press conference
The Burlington School District intends to sue chemical maker Monsanto after contamination from the company's PCBs forced the closure of the city high school and tech center in 2020.
The district wants to demolish the contaminated school on Institute Road and build a new one there. But the plan requires Burlington voters to approve a $165 million bond in November. District officials said at a press conference on Thursday that any money recouped in a lawsuit against Monsanto would help pay for the new building and decrease the burden on city taxpayers.
"Any money recovered from litigation would be used to pay down the bond in future years and reduce the amount taxpayers would be required to pay on debt," Wool said.
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Standing outside the now-closed building on Thursday, superintendent Tom Flanagan — joined by Mayor Miro Weinberger, school administrators, representatives from the teachers' union, school commissioners and several lawyers — said the district has been reviewing proposals for months from lawyers experienced in environmental litigation. Burlington law firm Langrock Sperry & Wool and national firms Seeger Weiss LLP and Grant & Eisenhofer will represent the school district in its lawsuit against Monsanto, which Flanagan said will be filed "soon."
Monsanto, which was acquired by Bayer AG in 2018, was the sole producer of PCBs in the U.S. from 1935 to 1977. The chemicals were found in common building materials such as caulking, tile adhesive and fluorescent light ballasts.
Burlington High School students were moved to a temporary downtown high school in March 2021 after elevated levels of airborne PCBs were discovered the previous year ahead of a planned $70 million renovation of the nearly 60-year-old building. That renovation has been scrapped in favor of the plan for a new building.
"We believe, and our board believes, that this is a win-win situation for our school district and for the City of Burlington," Flanagan said.
Mayor Weinberger said it's clear the district is making "a viable claim," and he applauded it for pursuing litigation.
Flanagan said on Thursday that the school district's impending litigation is "a separate initiative" from that lawsuit.
PCBs have been shown to cause cancer in animals, as well as health effects to the immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems, according to the EPA. Human studies have found evidence for "potential carcinogenic and non-carcinogenic effects of PCBs."
Exposure to the chemicals has also been found to suppress the immune system, increasing the risk of acquiring several human diseases. The chemicals do not easily break down and migrate between air, water, soil and building materials, remaining in the environment for long periods of time.
But, Pawa added, "our case will be stronger."
Pawa, an environmental litigation attorney at Seeger Weiss, recently helped New Hampshire win a $25 million settlement from Monsanto after PCBs polluted state waters. Pawa is also involved in PCB litigation on behalf of the City of Los Angeles and the State of New Jersey.
In 2021, Monsanto paid millions to students, parents and teachers exposed to PCBs through light ballasts at Sky Valley Education Center in Washington State.
When asked at the press conference whether other schools in Vermont would be able to join Burlington's lawsuit against Monsanto, Pawa declined to comment.
“Monsanto ... voluntarily stopped producing PCBs 45 years ago and its conduct has been appropriate at all times. Until the company terminated their production, PCBs were lawfully used in a number of commercial products that were manufactured by other companies. We will assess and respond to a complaint if one is filed.”