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Despite mounting costs, Vermont Senate kills bill to halt PCB testing in schools

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, 2024. The school is one of several dozen wrestling with PCBs after a state testing program found elevated levels of the toxic chemicals in the gym.

Despite funds dwindling to support the work, Senate leadership has killed a bill that would have paused the state’s program testing for PCBs in Vermont’s pre-K-12 schools.

As it did last year, the Vermont House passed a bill this session that would have halted testing for airborne polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic chemicals once widely used in construction materials. School officials have complained that the testing program has turned into a massively disruptive enterprise that risks saddling school districts with thousands — or millions — in unreimbursed expenses.

The House bill this year did get the Senate Education Committee’s unanimous endorsement. But it did not make it to the floor before lawmakers adjourned on Friday. And while the Senate could technically pass the measure when they return for a special veto session in June, the chamber’s leader, Sen. Phil Baruth, says that will not happen.

Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark is suing biotech giant Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs, in hopes of recouping cleanup costs, and has told lawmakers that stopping the testing outright might hurt the lawsuit’s chances of success.

Given Clark’s apprehensions, and the fact that the Agency of Natural Resources is slowing down its testing schedule anyway, Baruth argues it makes more sense to keep the program in place as-is.

“I think that accomplishes much of what the House wants to do without taking the step of legally halting the PCB [testing],” the Democrat/Progressive said in an interview Monday.

Attorney General Charity Clark at a press conference on Oct. 24.
Adiah Gholston
Vermont Public
Attorney General Charity Clark at a press conference on Oct. 24, 2023. Clark is suing the company Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs. She told lawmakers that legislation that would have paused PCB testing could impact the lawsuit; the legislation was not passed during the 2024 session.

Lawmakers enacted the first-in-the-nation mandate for schools to test for the probable carcinogens in 2021. Since Congress banned PCBs in 1979, the requirement applies to all schools — public or private — built or renovated before 1980. According to state officials, that’s 324 schools.

State officials say they’ve detected concentrations of the chemicals that exceeded the action levels established by the Vermont Health Department in a little over a third of the schools they’ve tested so far.

The House attempted to pause the program last year, but was met with opposition in the Senate. But lawmakers in the lower chamber did negotiate language into the state’s annual budget bill, which promised that the state would reimburse schools for the entire cost of remediation if PCBs were discovered during the course of state-mandated testing.

As of mid-March, there was only about $12 million left to support the program — and about half of all schools still left to test, according to the state.

Officials with the Agency of Natural Resources have previously estimated that completing testing and remediation work could cost $30 million to $70 million more than what lawmakers have already set aside.

Rep. Peter Conlon, who chairs the House Committee on Education, says it makes no sense to forge ahead with a program that’s “highly disruptive, very expensive, very stressful and with no full funding plan in place.”

The bill that he sponsored this year, H.873, would have paused testing once funding available for remediation dipped below $4 million, and eliminated the 2027 deadline by which schools are supposed to complete testing.

“The idea that we would continue with it when at the same time we are panicked about cost containment for property taxpayers in the [education] fund to me is simply baffling,” he said.

Baruth, for his part, argues that it’s not fair to say the Senate has “no plan” to pay for the program.

“We're paying as we go,” he said.

That line of thinking, however, is of little comfort to school officials.

“To have the public education system relying on ‘We’ll find the money went and if the need arises’ — that's not good public policy,” said Jeff Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

Francis, along with other school officials, have also emphasized how time-intensive and disruptive the public health initiative has become for local educators on the ground to navigate.

At Twin Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, for example, the gymnasium has been out of commission for over a year, and the library was only recently reopened — but only for staff, not students.

Remediation costs have already topped $2 million, according to principal Rebecca Fillion, and while the state so far has been fully reimbursing all costs, she worries about what will happen when available funding runs dry.

Money aside, Fillion is also struggling to manage the logistics of the program. She’s now dealing with shifting guidance from the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has its own set of standards. The science of PCB remediation, meanwhile, itself feels like “a moving target,” she said.

On the advice of the state, the school last year installed carbon air filtration units throughout the building. They were noisy and took a lot of electricity to run, but Fillion said she was hopeful they would fix the problem. Instead, another round of testing revealed even higher concentrations of the chemicals.

“I am not a scientist, I'm a principal, and I need to offer a school for learning. And these experiments, at our cost, are exhausting,” she said.

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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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