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Despite rising costs, the Vermont Senate rejects bill to end PCB testing in schools

Despite dwindling resources to support the work, Senate leadership has pushed aside a bill that would have ended the state’s PCB testing program in Vermont’s pre-K-12 schools.

Like last year, the Vermont House passed a bill this session that would have halted airborne testing of polychlorinated biphenyls, toxic chemicals once widely used in building materials. School officials have complained that the testing program has turned into a wildly disruptive undertaking that risks saddling school districts with thousands — or millions — in unreimbursed costs.

The House bill received unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee this year. But it did not come to the floor before lawmakers adjourned Friday. And while the Senate could technically approve the measure when they return for a special veto session in June, the chamber’s leader, Sen. Phil Baruth, says that won’t 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 immediately halting the testing could hurt the lawsuit’s chances of success.

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

“I think this accomplishes a lot of what the House wants to do without taking the step of legally halting PCB (testing),” the Democrat/Progressive said in an interview Monday.

Attorney General Charity Clark during a press conference on October 24.

Adiah Gholston

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Vermont Public

Attorney General Charity Clark during a press conference on October 24, 2023. Clark is suing the company Monsanto, which manufactured PCBs. She told lawmakers that legislation that would have halted PCB testing could impact the lawsuit; the legislation did not pass in the 2024 session.

Lawmakers passed the nation’s first mandate for schools to test for the probable carcinogens by 2021. Since Congress banned PCBs in 1979, this requirement has applied to all schools – public or private – built or renovated before 1980. According to state officials , that’s 324 schools.

State officials say they have detected concentrations of the chemicals that exceeded the action levels set by the Vermont Health Department in just over a third of the schools they have tested so far.

The House of Representatives tried to pause the program last year, but was met with opposition in the Senate. But lawmakers in the House did negotiate language in the state’s annual budget bill promising that the state would reimburse schools for the full cost of remediation if PCBs were discovered during state-mandated testing.

By mid-March, only about $12 million remained to support the program — and about half of all schools still needed testing, according to the state.

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

Rep. Peter Conlon, chairman of the House Committee on Education, said it makes no sense to continue with a program that is “very disruptive, very expensive, very stressful and for which there is no full funding plan.”

The bill he sponsored this year, H.873, would have halted testing once available recovery funding fell below $4 million and removed the 2027 deadline by which schools are expected to complete testing.

“The idea that we would continue to do this while at the same time panicking about cost control for property taxpayers in the (education) fund is simply mind-boggling to me,” he said.

For his part, Baruth argues that it is unfair to say the Senate has “no plan” to pay for the program.

“We pay as you go,” he said.

This line of thinking, however, offers little comfort to school officials.

“To have the public education system rely on ‘We’ll see if the money goes and if we need to’ — that’s not good public policy,” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

Francis, along with other school officials, also highlighted how time-consuming and disruptive the public health initiative has become for local teachers on the ground.

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

According to Director Rebecca Fillion, restoration costs have already exceeded $2 million, and while the state has fully reimbursed all costs so far, she worries about what will happen if available funding runs out.

Aside from the money, Fillion is also struggling to manage the logistics of the program. She now faces changing guidelines from the state and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has its own standards. The science of PCB remediation itself, meanwhile, feels like “a moving target,” she said.

Following the state’s advice, the school installed carbon filtration units throughout the building last year. They made a lot of noise and used a lot of electricity, but Fillion said she hoped they would solve the problem. Instead, a new round of testing showed it was even higher concentrations of the chemicals.

“I am not a scientist, I am a director, and I have to offer a training course. And these experiments, at our expense, are exhausting,” she said.

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