On June 30, 2023

Full speed ahead on PCB testing, but where’s the money?

 

By Rep. Peter Conlon

Editor’s note: State House Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, chair of the House Education Committee.

The recent news that Vermont’s Attorney General has filed suit against Monsanto for its sale of PCB-containing materials is an important step to hopefully recoup what is on track to be tens of millions of dollars — perhaps hundreds of millions — to fund the Scott administration’s PCB school testing and remediation program.

Unfortunately, it will be a long and arduous journey through the court system with no guarantees. Meanwhile, the administration’s first-in-the-nation testing and remediation program has no long-term funding plan, and it is going to cost a lot. 

The Agency of Natural Resources, which oversees the testing, has already said it needs twice the money and double the time — at least — just to perform the testing. The cost and timing of actually removing PCBs from schools looms like an incredibly expensive and disruptive dark cloud with no plan from the administration to pay for it. None.

The PCB testing program is only 50-odd schools into a list of over 300, and at least 14 have come up with levels of airborne PCBs exceeding Vermont’s lowest-in-the-nation safe levels. Extrapolate that out for the remaining schools, and this has the potential to be one costly program. 

Here are a couple of examples.

In Newport, North Country Union High School has over 100 rooms with airborne PCB levels that exceed what Vermont officials consider safe. This will need to be addressed — think millions of dollars — probably well before the school board can put forth an expected renovation plan for a building that is well past its useful date.

In Chester, Green Mountain Union High School’s third floor has shown levels that Vermont health officials say require immediate closure and costly remediation, ASAP.

And those are just two of 14 schools affected at this early stage of the testing. To be clear, the safe levels put in place by the administration are a fraction of the levels put forth by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. No other state has set safe levels as low as Vermont, and no other state has required testing of all schools.

While this commentary is about money and logistics, the testing program has now told these affected school communities that they have airborne carcinogens where they send their children — and really, what parent feels good about sending their kids to school after hearing that, regardless of complex explanations of nanogram levels? This program is sowing a great fear with no reassurance that such fears may be unfounded.

In 2023, the Vermont House voted overwhelmingly for a bill to pause this testing program and take a more thoughtful look at how it could be better coordinated with a high priority for so many Vermont school districts: long-deferred renovations and building replacement with state assistance. 

Under the current terms of the PCB testing, when PCBs above the Vermont safe levels are found, it must be addressed immediately. This can throw any long-term construction plans into chaos or simply force a school district to put millions of dollars of PCB remediation into a building it may replace or substantially renovate a few years down the road.

Despite the strong House support, the bill ran into a wall in the Senate, a wall strongly reinforced by the Scott administration. The commissioner of Health and the secretaries of the Agencies of Education and of Natural Resources were clear that the administration opposed pausing the testing in any way. Full speed ahead.

Yet, to date, no one in the Scott administration has suggested how to pay for all of this. 

Property tax dollars set aside in 2022 by the Legislature — about $30 million — are unlikely to cover the remediation just needed to date. Half that money alone is needed for Burlington High School’s PCB fiasco. And this mandate should not fall on the shoulders of public school districts. They did not ask for this. 

It should be noted that this program aims to test all schools — public and private — and pay for all remediation. This means that if issues are found at a private school, it could receive 100% funding from the taxpayers of Vermont.

For now, the money set aside for remediation comes from the Education Fund, the purpose of which is to fund public school budgets as approved by voters. As the cost of the administration’s testing program grows, it should not be funded by property taxpayers. Those dollars are to support budgets, and every dollar this initiative costs is added to the tax rate.

The Scott administration must provide a road map as to how this program should be funded. It must provide the Legislature with a clear idea of the total cost of doing all this. If we take what we know so far, it could be hundreds of millions of dollars. 

As chair of the House Education Committee, I know my colleagues and I look forward to hearing from the governor — who has made his opposition to raising any taxes clear — just how the PCB testing and remediation program, which his administration so strongly supports, will be paid for.

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