December 7, 2016

Editorial: In addressing PCBs, offer to test comes with a catch

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The highest levels of PCBs in a currently used school building were found at Doherty.

Last Thursday, the Worcester School Committee agreed to allow a team from the Mass. Department of Public Health to test the air quality at Burncoat and Doherty Memorial high schools.

Michael Feeney, director of the Indoor Air Quality Program for the Mass. Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Environmental Health, made the offer to perform testing at the schools during a presentation last Monday at Burncoat.

The Sun has detailed years of legal wrangling between the city and the union representing teachers, the Educational Association of Worcester (EAW), over the issue of testing for polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an organic pollutant and presumed human carcinogen.

Complete Sun coverage:

In June the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations issued an 86-page ruling in the EAW’s favor, a ruling the city is appealing despite accepting the offer to test at Burncoat and Doherty.

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Allowing air quality testing at Burncoat and Doherty is a small step forward for the city. As the Sun reported in November, “the city has long taken the position that testing was not necessary,” while at the same time detailing spending more than $1.2 million in the summer of 2012 for PCB remediation and $53.8 million overall for in school spending related to PCBs.

pcbs_warning_signJim Okun, representing O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates, the engineering firm retained by the city to consult on the issues of PCBs, suggested last Monday, “that if the district were to test school materials – not just air – for PCBs, it could trigger an EPA response that could end up costing the district millions of dollars and even lead to the closing of the affected school if the EPA deems remediation necessary,” according to an article in the Telegram & Gazette.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs in 1979, writing, “PCBs have caused birth defects and cancer in laboratory animals, and they are a suspected cause of cancer and adverse skin and liver effects in humans.”

However, as we wrote in October, “in a regulatory gap U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, vowed last week to repair, school officials are not required to replace potentially dangerous caulking or lighting fixtures unless PCB levels exceeding 50 parts per million are measured and recorded.

“It amounts to a ‘don’t test, don’t tell’ situation that potentially puts users of an older building at risk.”

Lights were recently replaced at Burncoat High School.

Lights were recently replaced at Burncoat High School.

We applaud the city and the Mass. School Building Authority’s expenditure of $53.8 million on best management practices and window replacement since 2012. Further, we applaud the School Committee’s decision to allow any testing at Doherty and Burncoat.

However, its continued legal wrangling with the EAW and its unwillingness to perform testing that would fully detail the extent of a possible PCB contamination, both done ostensibly to protect the city from a possible negative EPA response, has left the city open to charges that it does not grasp the serious nature or urgency of the matter.

We reiterate our stance that “The city must show it’s learned there are larger issues than legalities and budget woes when it comes to PCBs.”

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