Law & Courts

Vermont Is First State to Sue Monsanto Over PCBs in Schools

By Mark Lieberman — June 21, 2023 4 min read
Caution tape and caution signs surround Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on May 9, 2021.
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Vermont is suing the manufacturers of the highly toxic chemical PCBs, becoming the first state to demand compensation from companies for the cost of testing and remediating widely prevalent PCBs in schools.

PCBs, which stands for polychlorinated biphenyls, were manufactured by the chemical giant Monsanto. They were widely used as reliably sturdy sealants in building materials from the 1930s through the 1970s, until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned their manufacture in 1979.

Researchers have estimated that thousands of school buildings nationwide still contain these chemicals, which can cause a wide range of short- and long-term health issues if they become airborne, as Education Week extensively reported last year.

The complaint, filed on June 16 by Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark, a Democrat, cites internal Monsanto documents showing that company leaders were aware of the health dangers of using PCBs in school construction but chose to sell and market them anyway. The suit argues that the company’s aggressive marketing to schools is “perhaps the most disturbing aspect” of its overall efforts to sell the dangerous chemicals.

The suit names as defendants a trio of companies that collectively make up what used to be Monsanto. Those companies are called Monsanto, Solutia, and Pharmacia.

Vermont’s lawsuit joins several others filed in recent years against Monsanto over PCBs in schools. Teachers and parents of students at the Sky Valley Educational Center in Monroe, Wash., have filed numerous personal injury suits against Monsanto, including several that have yielded jury verdicts for the plaintiffs. The school district in Burlington, Vt., sued Monsanto last December, seeking reimbursement for the $190 million cost of replacing its 1960s-era high school facilities. The city of Hartford, Conn., has been awaiting a judge’s verdict since before the COVID-19 pandemic on whether Monsanto must pay $12 million to cover the cost of closing an elementary school building in 2015 over PCB concerns.

Monsanto, now owned by the pharmaceutical company Bayer, has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and fought several of these cases in court.

In a statement to Education Week, a spokesperson for Monsanto said Vermont’s case has “no merit.” The PCBs currently in school buildings were put there by third-party companies who used them in their products and then sold those products to schools, the statement says. Monsanto says school districts should have followed EPA recommendations and begun remediation work years ago.

“The state cannot recover damages from Monsanto for problems caused by its own neglect and delays,” the spokesperson wrote.

Lawsuits take a long time

Keri Hornbuckle, professor of civil and environmental engineering who runs a PCB research group at the University of Iowa, has mixed feelings about the lawsuits. She believes Monsanto ought to be held responsible for its role in the proliferation of PCBs and pay for the cost of programs like Vermont’s.

On the other hand, she thinks the federal government should play a bigger role in helping solve this problem so that schools don’t have to dip into their local budgets.

“We need a better way to remediate them than trying to recover the money through legal action,” she said. (Hornbuckle has contributed expert testimony on behalf of plaintiffs in legal cases against Monsanto.)

Hornbuckle’s team is hard at work developing PCB remediation strategies that will be easier and less costly for schools to implement. Ideally, she said, the federal government would also be investing in and conducting research to supplement those efforts. A proposal in Congress to invest $52 billion in PCB remediation efforts in schools has failed to gain traction.

Schools are wary of the costs and logistics of tackling PCBs

Vermont has been far ahead of other states in efforts to eliminate PCBs in schools statewide. Burlington High School shut down in 2020 upon findings of concerningly high levels of PCBs. From there, state lawmakers devised a testing program that is now in the process of assessing PCB levels in every school building constructed before 1980.

Depending on the results, schools either have to close individual rooms or shutter entire buildings. Out of nearly 50 schools that have been tested, more than 15 had PCB levels above the threshold considered safe in at least one room. Some state lawmakers were discussing pausing the testing program until a broader school construction plan gets finished, but that effort hasn’t garnered majority support in the legislature.

See Also

The exterior of Burlington High School in Burlington, Vt., on Sept. 19, 2022. The school has been closed due to the discovery of high levels of PCBs.
The former Burlington High School building in in Burlington, Vt., stands vacant after students were moved to another site due to chemical contamination.
Luke Awtry for Education Week

No other state has launched a comparable school testing program. The one that’s come closest is Washington, which last year commissioned a statewide study and allocated grant funds for districts to replace light fixtures that contain PCBs.

But these efforts can be prohibitively costly and cumbersome for school leaders, many of whom lack even a rudimentary understanding of how PCBs work and what needs to be done to remediate them safely. Similar pushes to test and remove lead from water fountains in schools have also proved challenging for districts to implement.

Ultimately, PCB-free buildings will make a meaningful impact on the health and well-being of students and staff, Hornbuckle said.

“School communities in states that want to attract families, that is something they should be doing,” Hornbuckle said. “You want to send your kid to a school that’s free of PCBs.”


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