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Vermont House advances bill to pause PCB testing in schools as costs mount

A building with white painted wooden siding and a sign that says "Cabot School" on a rainy day.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
The pre-K-12 Cabot School pictured on Tuesday, March 5. The school is one of several dozen wrestling with PCB remediation after a state testing program found elevated levels of the toxic chemicals in the gym.

With mounting costs quickly outrunning available funding, the Vermont House gave preliminary approval Tuesday to legislation that would indefinitely pause the state’s PCB testing program.

Lawmakers passed the first-in-the-nation mandate for pre-K-12 schools to test for the probable carcinogens in 2021. They did so in the wake of Burlington High School’s closure, which took place virtually overnight when elevated levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, were found on campus during routine testing ahead of a major renovation project.

The Legislature initially allocated $4.5 million for the effort, and, in a subsequent session, set aside another $32 million to support both testing and mitigation work. Gov. Phil Scott’s administration identified another $3.5 million to support the program. In the budget bill passed in 2023, lawmakers also added language clarifying that the state — not local school districts — should pick up the entire tab for cleanup.

“I want to make very clear: this bill is not about whether PCBs are a harmful chemical. They are. Monsanto made them and they alone should be held responsible for the irresponsible marketing of them in so many building materials. Instead, this bill is about protecting property taxpayers from standing in for Monsanto.”

Rep. Peter Conlon

But with the majority of the money already spoken for, and over half of all schools eligible still left to test, House lawmakers say the state risks reneging on its promise to hold schools financially harmless.

“Why continue testing when there is no plan to fund our obligation under Act 78 of 2023 to not let this turn into a massive unfunded mandate on property taxpayers?” Democratic Rep. Peter Conlon, who chairs the House education committee, told his colleagues on the floor. “Since ultimately, school districts would have to cover the cost of remediation if no other state dollars are available.”

Vermont’s Attorney General, Charity Clark, is suing biotech giant Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs, in hopes of recouping cleanup costs in schools and the state’s waterways.

“I want to make very clear: this bill is not about whether PCBs are a harmful chemical. They are. Monsanto made them and they alone should be held responsible for the irresponsible marketing of them in so many building materials,” Conlon continued. “Instead, this bill is about protecting property taxpayers from standing in for Monsanto.”

H.873 would pause testing once funding available for remediation at the Agency of Education dips below $4 million, and eliminate the 2027 deadline by which schools were supposed to complete testing. The House tentatively passed the bill on a voice vote with little debate on Tuesday evening. A second procedural vote is scheduled Wednesday, at which point the legislation will then head to the Senate.

School officials have been outspoken about how disruptive the testing program has become. In some districts, educators have had to shutter classrooms, gyms, lunchrooms and auditoriums while awaiting guidance from the state. In others, instructional spaces have been kept open with the use of large, filtered fans, whose dull roar is so loud students struggle to hear their teachers.

More from Vermont Public: As PCBs are found in more Vermont schools, the price tag grows for cleanup

House lawmakers are also laying the groundwork to re-start a school construction aid program, and they argue chemical contaminants like PCBs would be dealt with as part of a larger, more comprehensive plan for school facilities in Vermont.

PCBs were used widely in construction materials for several decades until the U.S. banned their manufacturing in 1979. Vermont’s testing mandate applies to all pre-K-12 schools — public and private — built before 1980. That’s 324 schools, according to state officials.

As of March 15, Vermont had tested 116 of all eligible schools, according to the Agency of Natural Resources, which administers the program. Of those schools, 41 — or 35% — had at least one area with PCB concentrations that exceeded the action levels established by the Vermont Health Department.

This is not the first time the Vermont House has advanced legislation to pause the program. They did so last year, but the measure died in the Senate when it was met with staunch opposition from the upper chamber’s leaders and Scott’s office. Both the Senate and the governor, however, have significantly softened their stance this year, and the legislation’s chances of passing appear much stronger.

“I’m open,” Democratic Sen. Brian Campion, who chairs the Senate Committee on Education, said Tuesday.

“I believe, but I could be wrong, that all the most high-risk buildings have been tested. …” Campion said. “I think that’s what we’ll be making certain has transpired.”

Julie Moore, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said that the state had indeed attempted to front-load those schools it believed were most at risk when it created its testing schedule. But she also cautioned that setting the state’s criteria involved many unknowns.

“This is fairly new work, not only in Vermont but nationwide. And so I don't want to get too far out in front, suggesting that we know everything we need to know to have full confidence in our risk scoring system,” she said.

Nevertheless, given fiscal constraints, Moore said the administration generally supports an approach that would “match testing to the available funding.” As of mid-March, the state had about $12 million left to support the program. ANR has estimated that completing testing and remediation work for all schools remaining in the pipeline could cost an extra $30 million to $70 million, although Moore stressed that this estimate also involved a high level of uncertainty.

Administration officials have criticized certain aspects of H.873. The $4 million trigger at which testing should stop, in order to preserve funding for remediation in schools where the chemicals have already been detected at high levels, is too conservative, according to Moore. She also noted it only takes into account the funds held by the Agency of Education, and not the additional money made available by her agency. And she argued that lawmakers should be making an attempt to identify additional funding sources.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said in an email that it would still be the governor’s “preference” to “finish what we started.”

“Originally, moving forward with PCB testing was a legislative priority. We warned we could be in the position we’re in at the time, but lawmakers ignored us and moved forward anyway. What the administration predicted would happen is happening,” he continued. “However, it’s clear the Legislature needs more time to and if they want to pause, we’ll work with them to do so to allow more time to figure out how to proceed.”

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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