March 31, 2017

Worcester teachers union wins PCB battle, will begin testing at Burncoat and Doherty

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[Updated 4:57 p.m., April 1]

The Educational Association of Worcester has prevailed in its long and hard-fought quest to investigate the presence of potentially cancer-causing PCBs in the air at Burncoat and Doherty Memorial high schools, the union president said.

The tests are set to begin 3 p.m. Monday at Burncoat, and April 24 at Doherty (time to be determined).

Roger Nugent, EAW president, first confirmed to the Sun Friday, March 31, that the School Committee’s ongoing appeal before the Commonwealth Employee Relations Board (CERB) was denied late Thursday, paving the way for window-caulk testing for polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at the two schools in the district where the concern — and potential danger — has been highest.

“I’m looking forward to seeing this happen and making sure those buildings are safe for kids and adults,” he said.

Nugent said Saturday morning that while the School Committee has not yet committed to halting further legal action, the two sides are “moving in the right direction for a binding agreement” and that union officials were reviewing a draft of such an agreement this weekend.

“It’s been going well,” he said, adding he was “very confident” that at least the testing at Burncoat will happen regardless of the school board’s next move.

Nugent said union officials will be meeting with experts Tuesday to discuss further action and reaffirmed Saturday that he’s continued to be in “close contact” with Mayor Joseph M. Petty and Brian E. Allen, Worcester Public Schools chief financial and operations officer, since the decision was reached.

Through his chief of staff, Daniel J. Racicot, Petty declined comment late Friday, saying the mayor’s office will “have more on this next week.” Racicot also deferred, citing a “spirit of cooperation” between the two sides.

“This issue continues to be a priority for us as a School Committee,” board member Molly O. McCullough told the Sun Saturday afternoon. “The health and safety of the city’s children will always be an important priority. We have a date set for the air quality testing and we will work with the EAW regarding the legal findings.”

On the prospect of spending millions of dollars in PCB remediation and/or displacing students, McCullough reiterated the School Committee’s long-term goals of building new schools. “At this time, what we are trying to do is push forward on getting schools like Doherty and Burncoat replaced,” she said. “We have Doherty on the feasibility study [with Massachusetts School Building Authority]. That’s our ultimate objective.”

Environmental Health & Engineering Inc. of Needham, the union’s consultant, will supervise the testing — which will be performed by a subcontractor of that firm — led by senior scientist Matt Fragala, who “has managed numerous large scale and complex exposure and forensic investigations involving contaminants such mold, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), asbestos, PCBs and toxic gases. He has also participated in nationwide studies of commercial buildings, schools, and residences that were sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” according to the company website.

The city is paying for the tests, Nugent said.

January testing at Burncoat by the Indoor Air Quality Program of the state Department of Public Health uncovered several problems in the school’s ventilation system and overall air quality, but did not test for PCBs beyond a rudimentary visual inspection of window caulking.

According to DPH, “carbon dioxide measurements were above the recommended level of 800 parts per million in the majority of areas surveyed the day of assessment, indicating a lack of fresh air exchange.”

Sixty-five of the 90 rooms or offices measured were above the recommended level.

A March report of those findings noted 28 recommendations, including ventilation upgrades, and direction to repair and continually monitor a proliferation of water leaks and damage across the school.

DPH was scheduled to conduct similar tests at Doherty earlier this month. Those test results are not yet available, and a DPH spokesman did not respond to a request for information prior to publishing.

Nugent noted Friday afternoon that “the district had begun to move more toward a spirit of cooperation in recent weeks.” The union president also hinted at progress toward a resolution in a memo to EAW members posted on the organization’s website March 29.

That progress and cooperation was not always evident.

In a disagreement between the EAW and School Committee that dates back to 2009, the School Committee had appealed a June 2016 decision by the state Department of Labor Relations that granted the union the right to test the air for PCBs.

In her decision then, state Labor and Workforce Development hearing officer Margaret Sullivan concluded, “the Employer contends that granting access to the EAW’s expert is unduly burdensome because the EAW wants to use that access to compel the Employer to acknowledge the authenticity of the results from those tests. If the Employer acknowledges the authenticity of those test results and if those results show a concentration of PCBs greater than 50 ppm, the EPA would require the Employer to immediately remove caulking from the school(s) where the test samples were taken. The Employer contends that such a mandatory removal could cost millions of dollars, force the closure of schools, and displace students.”

More PCBs coverage in Worcester Sun:

In Thursday’s decision, CERB Chairperson Marjorie F. Wittner and board member Katherine G. Lev wrote, “the Employer cannot have it both ways, i.e., contest the validity of the samples the Union obtained yet contend that further testing was unnecessary because testing had already occurred.

“Furthermore it is well-established that an employer is required to produce relevant and reasonably necessary information to a union upon request.”

In a statement, Mass. Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni said: “The Educational Association of Worcester deserves a lot of credit for the work it has done and continues to do to protect the health and safety of students and educators.

“The union stood strong for its principles through a lengthy legal battle put up by Worcester Public Schools. The public is more aware of this issue thanks to the EAW, and now hopefully Worcester can get the answers it deserves about the presence of dangerous chemicals in its schools.”

The School Committee must respond in writing with steps taken to comply with the decision within 10 days of its receipt of the decision.

[Patrick Sargent contributed reporting.]

Come back to Worcester Sun for updates on this story and more coverage of PCBs in Worcester schools.

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