- File: Luke Awtry
- Burlington High School
After Burlington High School closed in September 2020 because PCB contamination was detected inside, some concerned parents banded together to create a group called Open BHS.
The members — a University of Vermont professor, a data scientist and a financial adviser among them — lobbied the school district and state officials to reopen the campus. The parents argued that the social, emotional and academic impacts of remote learning and isolation had to be weighed against what they considered very nominal health risks from exposure to the polychlorinated biphenyls, the unabbreviated name for the chemicals detected in the school's air.
Members cited the huge discrepancy between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's PCB guidelines — 500 to 600 nanograms per cubic meter for adults and older students — and Vermont's extremely low screening level — 15 nanograms per cubic meter for people of any age. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram.
Yet the parents were rebuffed. At a special school board meeting late in September 2020, Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine and state toxicologist Sarah Vose gave a presentation about the health risks of PCBs, saying they stood by their recommendation that the high school stay closed.
"They created the impression that the levels of PCBs at BHS were so high that we should all be worried about our kids getting cancer," parent Caroline Beer said.
The call left the community "very scared," said another member of the group, Dan Cunningham. The parents' bid was ultimately unsuccessful.
At least three parents in the 100-plus-member group transferred their children to Rice Memorial High School, a nearby private Catholic school. Meanwhile, Burlington High School students continued learning almost entirely remotely until March 2021, when they moved into a temporary school in a former Macy's department store downtown. Because of the chemical contamination at the Institute Road campus, district officials ultimately decided to forgo a planned $70 million renovation and have chosen instead to build a new school there.
So when the state last week created "action levels" that relaxed its guidance for airborne PCBs in schools, those parents felt vindicated but also dismayed.
"We've sort of been forced down this path that, ultimately, probably wasn't necessary," Greg Fanslow said. "You ... take a position that appears to be out on a limb, and then ultimately the powers that be basically come around to do exactly what you said they should have done all along ... There's some consolation to it, but there's just been so much damage caused as a result of this sort of stubborn behavior that it's hard to be happy about it."
- File: Bear Cieri
- Tom Flanagan
In an interview last Friday, superintendent Tom Flanagan said the district doesn't yet know how the state's decision will affect the high school project. Still, Flanagan said, "it is important information for us to have for Burlington High School and all of our schools."
The district's six elementary and two middle schools were all constructed before 1980, when building materials such as caulk, flooring adhesive and lighting ballasts commonly contained PCBs.
"This certainly adds some complexity to our next steps," Flanagan said of the new guidance.
The district and its consultants met with the Department of Health and the EPA on Monday, school district spokesperson Russ Elek said in an email, "and we didn't learn anything ... that suggests we should change course; we know that there are still PCBs in the walls, the windows, the floor, the soil, etc., so at this time we are proceeding with the plan in place."
Whether voters will support spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new high school building is another matter. The district has proposed putting a bond on the November 2022 ballot. And the new guidance will certainly impact how other Vermont school districts deal with PCBs. The legislature allocated $4.5 million to test for the chemicals in schools statewide; that's expected to begin in the coming months.
The new state guidance notes that 15 nanograms per cubic meter "is close to the background PCB concentrations in air" and therefore could "result in frequent exceedances" during the statewide testing. Many of the approximately 450 school buildings in the state were built before 1980 and therefore will be eligible for testing, according to Vose.
Schools should take action to "identify and abate" potential PCB sources inside their buildings, the guidance says, if tests show a concentration of 100 nanograms per cubic meter of air in buildings used by seventh graders to adults; 60 nanograms per cubic meter for kindergartners to sixth graders; and 30 nanograms per cubic meter for prekindergartners.
Vermont's previous 15-nanogram screening level was far lower than that of any other state. The action levels are a new construct.
Many experts who spoke to Seven Days earlier this year thought that Vermont's screening level was way too low.
"As a toxicologist, I worry about lead and other heavy metals with regard to children's health," Laura Green, president and senior toxicologist of Green Toxicology in Brookline, Mass., said in May. "I do not worry about PCBs, and I would never recommend demolishing the school at issue."
Vermont's 15-nanogram screening number is "an extremely low level, and I think it's going to be a very hard level to hit," environmental toxicologist Jim Okun said in May. "I think the EPA goal is actually a pretty aggressive goal already."
The Vermont Department of Health created the screening levels eight years ago. At the time, the agency didn't consider that it is "pretty common" to find low levels of PCBs — around 10 to 15 nanograms — in indoor air, even when no source of PCBs is nearby, Vose said.
Fanslow, who worked as a water-quality regulator when he lived in California, said Vose's statement confirms what some parents believed all along: "That the old standard was not achievable and lacked any sign of the forethought and peer review that good regulation should be based on."
And yet it never changed, Vose said, because the Department of Health didn't revisit it from year to year.
"Now that there's a program with several hundred schools to be tested, that's what sort of brought this more into focus," Vose said.
Trish Coppolino, senior environmental program manager with the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, said the state told Burlington officials and district consultants last year that they had the option of doing a more detailed PCB assessment. Coppolino said the consultants chose not to.
"The school made their own decisions on the path that they wanted to take," Coppolino said.
Elek, the school district spokesperson, confirmed Coppolino's account, noting that Burlington officials felt that they "were facing the potential of spending valuable time and money on experiments, leaving us with a building without any substantive learning environment upgrades and little assurance that the remaining PBC levels would be below the state guidelines." When Flanagan recommended building a new school, the guidance's limits were still at 15 nanograms.
Coppolino said that her agency was recently given oversight over PCBs in indoor air. Before last spring, she said, the EPA was in charge of regulating PCB levels — though Coppolino noted that the federal agency would typically defer to states that had a different calculation of risk, as Vermont did.
Burlington's school board, which next meets on December 7, has already voted to abandon its contaminated school and build a new one, though the process is in its early stages. Testing in summer 2020, ahead of the planned renovation, found levels in the thousands of nanograms per cubic meter in the F building, which housed the technical center.
Further testing in the other five high school buildings found much lower PCB levels: between one and 300 nanograms per cubic meter, with an average of 98 nanograms. Of 40 rooms tested in those five buildings, 28 were below 100 nanograms — the new guidance's limit for high school students — while two were exactly 100. Three others were between 260 and 300. The remaining seven rooms were between 110 and 170 nanograms.
Superintendent Flanagan told Seven Days in May that officials from the EPA and the Vermont Department of Health "said, 'No, these are above our screening values ... Our screening values are our screening values for a reason. We are concerned about these numbers. We're concerned about this building.'"
While the new action level is higher, both Vose and Coppolino cautioned against second-guessing Burlington's decision to build a new school.
"I just don't want it to seem like it's something that's a game changer for the City of Burlington, because they still have a lot of high-PCB-containing building materials in their school that need to be addressed, regardless of [changing guidance]," Coppolino said. "They still have a lot of work to do if they wanted to reuse the building."
Commissioner Levine seconded that sentiment at the governor's weekly COVID-19 press conference on Tuesday.
"I wouldn't want the thesis [of a news story] to be that what we did, all of a sudden, should make Burlington change everything they did, and they wasted millions of dollars and caused lots of distress to kids who couldn't be in their school, because that's actually not an accurate reflection of the process," Levine said.
When the legislature reconvenes in January, it must, by law, develop additional guidance for schools around PCB testing, said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents' Association.
"If you have to remediate, what funding will you use to do it?" Francis asked. "And that consideration really is reflective of the fact that there's not a school district that I know of that has money in their budget to remediate for PCBs."
Keri Hornbuckle, a University of Iowa professor who has researched PCBs for decades, told Seven Days in May that airborne PCBs can be addressed by removing the source, such as window caulking.
After reviewing the new state guidance last week, Hornbuckle said she could tell "a lot of thought went into the decision."
"The state is clearly thinking about how to protect children and making a plan to do so," she wrote in an email.
Fanslow, whose daughter now attends Rice, said he isn't sure what Burlington's path forward should be.
"I think this whole process has put a lot of fear in people's minds about PCBs," he said, "but, on the other hand, building a new school is kind of an unjustified cost in the city, so I can kind of see the district being stuck in between those two perspectives."
Beer, the Open BHS member, said state regulators should be blamed — and fired — for what she described as a "catastrophe."
"The state should compensate the students who lost an entire year of their education," she wrote in an email. "The state must also reimburse the tax payers of Burlington for the tens of millions of dollars that their ineptitude has cost us."