Guest editorial: Vt.’s ‘gold standard’ on PCBs has school leaders terrified

If the State of Vermont accepted the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for airborne polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], Burlington would not be on the hook for a $190 million rebuild of its high school and the administrations of most of Vermont’s other schools, public and private, would not be terrified their fates would follow that of Burlington’s.

The science behind the issue and the Legislature’s blank check response has created what many call the session’s OMG moment.

This moment of peril began in 2020 when Burlington High School officials learned the school had PCB levels above state standards. The school had planned a $70 million renovation, and the environmental testing was standard protocol. When the elevated numbers were reported to the department of health, the school was forced to close its doors. The school was also in the midst of the pandemic, with students already being taught remotely. There was little to no debate, and the school made plans to shift its operation to the abandoned Macy’s department store, with its lease and “fit-up” costs totaling $10 million, or $1.5 million annually. It is estimated the school’s 988 students will be a tenant of Macy’s until the new high school is built, an estimated three years from now.

PCBs were outlawed in 1979, but until then, they were commonplace in building materials. Most of Vermont’s schools were built in the 1960-1980 era, at a time when PCBs were routinely used. When BHS’s numbers were made public the obvious follow up question was how many other Vermont schools, if tested, would register above the state’s PCB guidance levels?

In the 2021 session legislators responded to that question by allocating $4.5 million to test for PCBs in all schools built before 1980. In the 2022 session the Legislature appropriated $32 million from the education fund to pay for any remediation efforts needed. The legislation requires that 320 identified schools be tested by July 2025.

From afar, the response seems logical. A school tests for PCBs. It fails to meet state standards. PCBs are poisonous. Shut the school down. Have other schools test for PCBs. Set aside a couple of bucks for any problems found.

Here’s the stunner: When Burlington did its testing, the state’s recommended ceiling for PCBs was 15 nanograms per cubic meter. The standard guidance set by the EPA for that same high school age group is 600 nanograms per cubic meter. That’s a 4,000 percent difference. Why such an astronomical gap between the two? Is the EPA known for its permissiveness when it comes to public health threats? Hardly.

Vermont, as we have learned, is the only state to have a screening process for PCBs. (Of course it does.) State officials defend it as the “gold standard.” (Again, we’re number one. Yay!?)

Here is the “science” behind that “gold standard” as reported by Seven Days: First, the state finds it “unacceptable” to allow PCB levels that would increase “cancer diagnoses by an estimated one case per million people exposed.” Second, the standard is based on “maximum” levels of exposure, which, they estimated, would be the equivalent of teachers being exposed “at 11 hours per day, 250 days per year for 30 years.”

If the school has 988 students, it would be 1,012 years before that millionth person contracted cancer from the PCBs.

So why is the science so different for folks at the EPA than it is for Vermont’s health department? What scientific insight does the state have that the EPA and 49 other states don’t have? Good question. No idea.

It gets worse.

The Legislature’s effort to get all schools tested prompts other questions: If other schools test above the state’s recommended nanogram number, what happens? Are the schools shut down? Will they be forced to tear down and rebuild like BHS? Where will the students go? Will the taxpayers in each school district be on the hook for the massive expense of rebuilding? Will the state chip in?

BHS is one high school. There are 72 high schools in Vermont. Let’s be conservative and say 10 of the 72 do not meet the state’s PCB standard and let’s say the cost of rebuilding those schools is half of Burlington’s $190 million. That’s still a billion dollars in new costs.

This obvious insanity has caught the attention of Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, who is chair of the House Education Committee. He introduced, and the House passed a bill to pause the testing of PCBs in our schools. (The House Ed Committee passed it on an 11-1 vote.) The committee’s intent is to hold off on the testing until legislators have a better understanding of how to proceed. As Mr. Conlon notes, it’s nuts to blindly obligate the state, our schools, and its taxpayers, to spend an unfathomable amount of money without knowing the scope of the issue, how each school is affected, and how the costs would be paid.

Here is an equally troubling thought: Fear is easily spread and exaggerated. Two former BHS teachers have already filed suit against Monsanto — the company whose products contained the PCBs — for health reasons associated with the alleged overexposure. Facebook is already being used by law firms fishing for “clients” to sue either Monsanto or the schools, or both. How do we protect ourselves from witnessing the state’s educational system being turned upside down? Can we handle a BHS event that could be replicated throughout the state?

No, we can’t. Which is why Mr. Conlon’s legislation needs to be supported by the Senate and the governor. But, as obvious as that sounds, the Senate’s leadership is not motivated to stop the testing. They are not concerned about the poor science and the blank checks. Perhaps they should start hearing from our schools, our school boards, students who don’t want their educations disrupted, and the taxpayers who would be asked to foot the bill.

And why stop with our schools? What about hospitals and day care centers? Why would they not be held to the same PCB standard?

The point has also been made that of all the health-related things we have to worry about, PCBs are far, far down the list. A poor diet has far more health care ramifications than low PCB levels. So does smoking. Or drinking.

What is intolerable about this predicament is the accompanying silence. Every school administrator in the state is deeply worried about what could happen in our schools if the testing program continues unchecked and existing PCB standards remain. Why is there no response, no leadership from the administration, or the Agency of Education?

It’s an OMG moment that shouldn’t be, and it’s as embarrassing as it is threatening.

Note: Emerson Lynn is editor emeritus at the St. Albans Messenger

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