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Legislators Consider Pausing School PCB Testing Program


Published March 14, 2023 at 6:56 p.m.

  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
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The Vermont House Education Committee on Tuesday took a preliminary step toward pausing a statewide school testing program for PCBs in order to align it with the  legislature’s broader priorities for improving school facilities.

School superintendents and state officials have testified over the past several weeks that identifying and remediating the toxic chemicals in school buildings is a complicated, time-intensive process that has the potential to disrupt long-term construction plans.

“[We’re] moving along with school construction. We're doing some really thoughtful, strategic work and planning about what that might look like," 
Jill Briggs Campbell, the Agency of Education's COVID-19 federal emergency funds program manager, told legislators on March 1. "And PCBs are sort of like ... a grenade with the pin already pulled that could just drop into any given school and sort of blow up some very thoughtful strategic thinking.”

The legislature initiated the testing  in 2021 after Burlington discovered elevated levels of the chemicals in its high school. Roughly 320 Vermont schools built before 1980 are to be tested for airborne PCBs, and remediation is required if concentrations are above the state’s action levels.

The program started nine months ago. To date, eight of the 22 schools that have completed the initial air testing process detected PCB levels that require further action.

The state is concurrently undertaking a school facilities assessment — a provision of Act 72 of 2021 — that will provide a detailed analysis of  Vermont’s aging school buildings and is due in October. Sen. Martine Gulick (D-Chittenden Central) recently introduced a bill that would convene a task force to use the assessment to start drafting a statewide plan for school facilities. It would also develop a road map for restoring state aid for school construction projects, which was halted in 2007 due to a backlog of projects.

Rep. Peter Conlon (D-Cornwall), the House Education Committee chair, said in an interview last week that he believes the state PCB testing program should be delayed until that task force convenes. Its members could figure out how to integrate the PCB testing initiative into the state’s larger school construction priorities.

At the same time, Conlon said he wants to ensure that schools that have already detected problematic PCB levels can access state aid to remediate. State officials have proposed distributing the $32 million allocated last year but would require schools to contribute 20 percent of the cost, and the amount of aid to a given school would be capped. But cash-strapped superintendents have pushed back, arguing that school districts should not be required to pay even a fraction of the cost of a legislative mandate.

On Tuesday, Conlon asked legislative counsel to draft a bill that would  pause the statewide testing program and commit funds to schools that need to remediate.

One House Education committee member expressed reservations about halting the testing program.

“We’ve been talking about the health concerns of PCBs since we really discovered them and understood them ... and I think the state’s been pretty vocal about [that],” Rep. Chris Taylor (R-Milton) said. “So that’s why I hesitate.”

Conlin's bill would likely face opposition in the upper chamber. Senate Education Committee chair Brian Campion (D-Bennington) told Seven Days last week that he opposes pausing the PCB testing, calling the presence of the chemicals in schools “a public health issue.”

“Punting it … strikes me as irresponsible,” Campion said.

The Agency of Education appears to agree.

“Continuing to test schools and providing results can help inform larger school construction conversations,” AOE spokesperson Ted Fisher wrote in an email to Seven Days on Monday. “We will continue to work with the legislature and our schools to navigate these complex conversations and situations, but a delay in testing seems inconsistent with the common goals.”