Report: GM PCB levels under control; long, complex cleanup ahead

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

The results of air monitoring and sampling as well as identifying sources of PCBs at Green Mountain High that took place over the summer are in and the report is a mixed bag. While some areas – especially the caulking around windows – are registering quite quite high, it appears that carbon filters have lowered the concentration of the carcinogenic chemicals to acceptable levels. The required clean up likely will be prolonged and expensive but the State of Vermont has said it would shoulder the costs in Act 74 of 2023.

Polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — are man-made chemicals used in building materials and in electrical equipment like transformers. They don’t break down quickly and can accumulate in the human body. Their use has been linked to both cancer and non-cancer health problems. PCBs were outlawed in the United States in 1979. According to a 2015 EPA document PCBs in Building Materials—Questions & Answers, “Dietary intake and inhalation are the greatest sources of exposures to PCBs in the general population, although PCB concentrations in food have decreased.” Inhalation can be a result of the off-gassing of PCBs directly and through the dust or other materials contaminated by PCBs.


A sampling device for detecting PCBs

PCBs were found at the high school  during a screening that was part of the Vermont PCBs in Schools program this past April. This summer’s investigations conducted by Harper Environmental and John Turner Consulting found “extremely high” concentrations of PCBs in the caulking around the windows and that ceiling tiles, floor paints and non-porous surfaces were also contaminated but at “significantly lower concentrations.”

One bright spot in the report was regarding the carbon filters installed in about 50 locations during the summer. Harper stated that, “The filters were found to be highly effective in reducing indoor air PCB concentrations with levels reduced below the (immediate action level) … in all but one sampling location.”  According to Lauren Fierman, superintendent of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, only one classroom  is not able to be used at this point. The report says that filtering will run continuously until the remediation is done.

The report also says that more sampling will be done in early November, which will give school officials an idea of how closing the windows and heating the building will increase the airborne PCB levels. According to Fierman, it’s conceivable that more filtering units will be added if those levels rise.

The Harper/Turner report recommends that more investigations be conducted including sampling the window caulk in rooms that have not yet been sampled, sampling porous surfaces like brickwork near the windows to see if they have been contaminated and checking window exteriors for caulk containing PCBs.

In addition, the report recommends preparing a Corrective Action Plan for approval by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It also suggests second quarterly air monitoring in November. That has been scheduled for early November 2023 according to TRSU Facilities Director Todd Parah.

A sampling map created by Harper Environmental shows the positions of samplers and the areas by groups

A sampling map created by Harper Environmental shows the positions of samplers and the areas by groups

There is not currently a timetable for the Corrective Action Plan, but considering that after it is conceived and written, it must be reviewed and approved by one federal and one state agency, significant delays are possible. In fact, the report calls for a December 2024 sampling to re-evaluate the areas where carbon filters have been in use, but there’s no mention of any changes brought about by work on the building.

All of this costs money and in mandating the testing for PCBs the legislature made a down payment. Act 178 set aside $32M of the education fund to help with the assessment, mitigation and corrective actions. Of that, $16M was earmarked for Burlington High School. The law includes a provision for grants in “an amount sufficient to pay for 100 percent of
the school’s investigation, remediation, or removal costs” but the funds for such projects have not been appropriated so far.

The Telegraph called Patricia Coppolino of DEC’s Sites Management Section several times to ask about the process and timetables but by publication time those calls had not been returned. We also called Craig Sterritt of Harper Environmental on Tuesday Oct. 10, but he was out of the office for the week.  The Telegraph will update this story when we hear from them.

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