As PCBs are found in more Vermont schools, the price tag grows for cleanup
Vermont is the only state in the country that’s testing all of its older school buildings for PCBs, a class of industrial chemicals that were used in building materials, and which are known to cause cancer.
The testing started last year, and it’s proven to be more complicated, and expensive, than originally thought.
Lawmakers this year talked about pausing the program, but in the end they decided to continue testing schools.
Mary Kaufmann, the principal of the Oak Grove Elementary School in Brattleboro, says when the state tested the building last year they found PCBs in a window that was installed in the 1970s.
“I think it was a real shock when the results came back,” Kaufmann said. “And really trying to understand what that means for us, and for our school, and the community. You know, we’re still grappling with it, and really trying to understand the whole scenario. And PCBs are a new thing, I didn’t know anything about them until this happened.”
The state wanted Oak Grove to shut down the classroom with the old windows, but Kauffman said that wouldn’t have been possible until this summer because space is tight.
So the kids and teachers spent the school year in the classroom, with air filters and Kaufmann closely monitoring the time they were exposed, using recommendations from the Department of Health.
An enormous undertaking
The state wants to test about 320 schools. Trish Coppolino of the Department of Environmental Conservation says it’s a huge project, with consultants first visiting a school to do an inventory of where the old building materials are located, and then testing the air for PCBs.
“We get an inventory from a consultant that might be multiple pages long, full of hundreds of different types of building materials that exist in the school from caulking, to mastic, to different jointing materials,” said Copplino. “It’s definitely been a lot for us to understand the process of reviewing this data and putting it into something that’s usable.”
When the Legislature passed the law two years ago for the testing program, schools were expected to cover 20% of the cleanup costs. But after pushback from the education community, lawmakers this year changed that, and the state will now cover remediation moving forward.
Legislators put $13.5 million in the budget for the PCB project, but Coppolino doesn’t think that will go very far.
“I don’t expect that that dollar amount will fully cover the expected need that we’ll have for the schools in the state," Coppolino said.
As of June 16, test results had come back for 54 schools, and 16 have at least one room above the state’s action level.
"We don’t want our students exposed, and our staff exposed to PCBs, or any other contaminants. You know we are a place that’s supposed to be safe for kids and families, and we really strive to make sure that this is a safe place."Mary Kaufmann, Oak Grove School principal
Lawmakers had considered halting the testing program because there’s work going on to launch a school construction program, and some legislators thought it didn’t make sense to test, and invest in, school buildings that might soon be renovated anyway.
Vermont’s Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine did not support putting the brakes on the PCB testing program.
“Even if a school might be torn down in five years, say, because that was part of a plan, let’s say, in the community. The reality is we are in real time finding results that are of concern, both to students and to the staff,” Levine said. “So it would be, I think, really a shame to put a pause on testing when we’re actually finding results and protecting students and staff."
So the testing, and cleanup, continue.
'It has to be done'
Back at Oak Grove School, the district’s plan to remove the window with the PCBs is being held up by the uncertainty over the state budget that Gov. Phil Scott vetoed. The money for helping schools with the PCB remediation is in the budget.
But Kaufmann, the Oak Grove principal, says one way or the other, the windows are coming out.
“If the state can’t pay for it, we will have to, because it has to be done,” Kaufmann said. “You know, we don’t want our students exposed, and our staff exposed to PCBs, or any other contaminants. You know we are a place that’s supposed to be safe for kids and families, and we really strive to make sure that this is a safe place. And like I said we’ll do whatever we can to ensure we get the problem taken care of.”
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