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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Events

School Climate & Safety K-12 Essentials Forum Strengthen Students’ Connections to School
Join this free event to learn how schools are creating the space for students to form strong bonds with each other and trusted adults.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure & Management Webinar
Future-Proofing Your School's Tech Ecosystem: Strategies for Asset Tracking, Sustainability, and Budget Optimization
Gain actionable insights into effective asset management, budget optimization, and sustainable IT practices.
Content provided by Follett Learning
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts District Can Deny Opt-Outs on LGBTQ+ Books, Court Rules
Religious parents objected to a Maryland district's policy ending opt-outs for elementary school 'storybooks' with LGBTQ+ themes.
5 min read
A pedestrian passes by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Courthouse, June 16, 2021, on Main Street in Richmond, Va.
A person walks near the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit's courthouse in Richmond, Va. A panel of the court denied an injunction seeking to restore religious parents' opportunity to opt their children out of LGBTQ+ "storybooks" in a Maryland district.
Steve Helber/AP
Law & Courts Brown v. Board of Education: 70 Years of Progress and Challenges
The milestone for the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down racial segregation in schools is marked by a range of tributes
12 min read
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
People mill around the third floor of the Kansas Statehouse in front of a Brown v. Board of Education mural before hearing from speakers recognizing the 70th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court case on April 29, 2024 in Topeka, Kan.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Law & Courts Republican-Led States Sue to Block New Title IX Rule
A pair of lawsuits focus on the rule's protections for students' gender identity.
5 min read
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Demonstrators advocating for transgender rights and healthcare stand outside of the Ohio Statehouse on Jan. 24, 2024, in Columbus. Four Republican-led states filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the Biden administration's new Title IX regulation, which among other things would codify protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Patrick Orsagos/AP
Law & Courts Why It Will Now Be Easier for Educators to Sue Over Job Transfers
The case asked whether transferred employees had to show a 'significant' change in job conditions to sue under Title VII. The court said no.
8 min read
Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022.
Light illuminates part of the Supreme Court building at dusk on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 16, 2022. The high court on Wednesday, April 17, 2024, made it easier for workers, including educators, to sue over job transfers.
Patrick Semansky/AP