Independent Test Results Set Off Communitywide Frustration

Environmental test results released by local group Malibu Unites (MU) and a Washington D.C.-based group last week sparked outrage on all sides of the issue, including teachers union representatives and district Supt. Sandra Lyon, who accused the groups of trying to “incite” the public. 

Some classrooms contain caulk consisting of up to “one-third” cancer-causing carcinogens known as PCBs, according to independent testing funded by MU and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The testing was completed after members of MU and PEER grew frustrated with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District and apparently took matters into their own hands by removing caulk samples from classrooms at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, Malibu High and Malibu Middle School. 

“We’re trying to give people the facts of what’s at the school because the school district has been negligent,” said Paula Dinerstein, an attorney with PEER. 

The groups have been critical of a district cleanup plan that could leave PCBs in place for up to 15 years. That plan has yet to be finalized, and Environ, a firm hired by the school district, is still conducting its own tests of the campus during the summer.

When asked who had gathered the samples, Dinerstein said the person or persons would remain anonymous. 

“The school district has expressed a strong intent to shoot the messenger of whoever gathered the samples,” she told The Malibu Times

PEER says it represents more than 20 teachers and staff members at the three schools, many of whom fear that PCBs or other contaminants in classrooms and campus soil could be related to three diagnoses of thyroid cancer and other thyroid illnesses among teachers who first came forward with the issue last October. 

Lyon told The Malibu Times the district would not pursue any legal action against the groups that took the sampling. In a statement issued to the community, she reiterated that the district is following standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Dept. of Toxic Substances and Control (DTSC).

“Samples were apparently surreptitiously gathered over a month ago and test data was released in a manner that was most certainly designed to incite concerns,” Lyon said. 

Since releasing their test results, MU and PEER have demanded the district move potentially contaminated classrooms into trailers, remove any PCB-containing caulk within a year if it tests above the federal threshold of 50 parts per million and reallocate more bond money to remediate the situation.

But Lyon and the district have no plans to give in to MU and PEER’s demands until Environ is done with its assessment.

“I cannot allow PEER and Malibu Unites to force action that fully dismisses the authority and scientific expertise of the government agencies,” she said. 

Sarah Braff, vice president of of the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association (SMMCTA) called the testing methods “rogue” and insisted that any group doing research should follow the ethical standards of practice and transparency. Braff said the unions’ first concern is for the safety and health of the teachers, staff and children in the SMMUSD.  

“The SMMCTA relies on experts such as the EPA and the DTSC because we are not environmental scientists,” Braff told The Malibu Times.

She said the union is not working with PEER but is aware that some of its members are involved with PEER. 

Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal, who has been involved in school district affairs for several years, said she is working to get each of the interested groups into the same room to prevent further “misunderstanding” of the environmental situation.

“I’m trying to see … if we can put a panel discussion together with all of the interested parties so that everyone can sit down in the same room.” 

Jennifer deNicola, MU president, was incensed by the test results, which showed high levels in Juan Cabrillo classroom 19, where she said her child was moved after classrooms were relocated from Malibu Middle School last fall.

“Sixth-grade students, including my own child, were unnecessarily exposed when relocated to a room that was more toxic than the room they were moved from,” she said. 

Seth Jacobson, a Malibu parent who sits on a district-led environmental task force, questioned the timing of MU and PEER’s decision to release the independent test results.

“I’m frustrated that they’ve taken this much more confrontational attack by doing secret testing and waiting until the third week in July to release data,” Jacobson said. According to the four pages of a 19-page report posted online by the groups, the samples were submitted to a lab in El Dorado Hills, Calif., on June 13 and results came back on July 7.

“We have yet to see the new data [from Environ], so for [MU and PEER] to release this data ahead of Environ reports … it seems like we’re not all operating as a community which is not positive and not helping anybody,” he said, “and to try and scare parents, it’s not good for us.

“We need to all work together and not debate this with press releases,” he added.

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