New Firm to Handle Malibu High PCB Removal

Malibu High School

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education last week hired a new firm to oversee the next phase of environmental testing at Malibu High School, following months of health concerns over possible contamination at the campus. 

The board gave district staff approval to negotiate terms with environmental firm Environ. The firm would conduct soil testing at the campus, as well as additional air quality testing. But the absence of cost estimates for the testing raised questions among the board. 

“As you’re going into negotiations with them, I hope that one of the many concerns … is protecting the district’s financial health,” Boardmember Ben Allen told Superintendent Sandra Lyon at Thursday’s board meeting in Santa Monica. 

The hiring of Environ, a multinational firm with a branch in Los Angeles, comes as the district phases out current environmental consultant Mark Katchen and his company, the L.A.-based Phylmar Group. Katchen’s firm will be paid $261,000 for three months of work. In addition, NRC Environmental, a firm which specializes in hazardous materials, was paid for cleaning classrooms at MHS over winter break.

Finally, the district’s legal counsel for the environmental issues in Malibu, Pillsbury Winthrop Pittman and Shaw LLP, is being paid a blended rate that ranges from $270 to $695 an hour.

Concerns about contamination on campus arose in October when a group of Malibu High School teachers, including three that were diagnosed with thyroid cancer, sent a letter to the district questioning the safety of the campus.

Tests revealed that caulk and dust in several of the rooms contained high levels of PCBs, a cancer-causing contaminant. The levels were high enough to trigger oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Tests showed that the air was safe for students, according to EPA officials.

Right before students went on winter break, the district announced that it would test the rooms, then clean them and test again.

Results from the pre-cleaning tests were within EPA’s standards, Lyon said in a release last week.

Some parents questioned those results because some of the rooms were tested with the windows open. Because teachers sometimes teach with the windows open, Lyon said earlier this month it was prudent to test some rooms with windows up.

Cleaning went smoothly, Lyon said, and some teachers returned to classrooms that had been shuttered.

There has been no word on results from the second round of testing that were supposed to be returned on Tuesday.

Allen said that from what he’s heard, there is nothing new in the data.

Last week, the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) claimed that 12 teachers refused to return to classrooms, citing a hurried clean-up effort at the school. PEER did not say who those teachers are.

PEER called for a comprehensive testing plan for contaminants other than PCBs. They also called for soil testing. Environ will help oversee more air and soil testing, school officials said in board meeting documents.

“The engineering firm will develop investigation plans under the oversight of, and in collaboration with, the EPA and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control,” officials said.

The EPA has been silent on the contamination issue this month. An EPA official tested some of the rooms tested by the district to ensure quality control.

Who is PEER and why are they involved?

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility was created as an advocacy group in 1996 to focus on cases where government or public employees have environmental concerns with their workplace or employer, said Paula Dinerstein, a senior attorney for PEER.

“We regularly represent people all over the country, we do what we can to help in terms of employing our expertise, our media, our advocacy and litigation if necessary,” Dinerstein said Tuesday.

This is the first school site case PEER has worked on, Dinerstein said. The nonprofit has represented employees in other government cases such as concerns over indoor air quality during the ongoing renovation of the Dept. of Interior building in D.C.

The identities of Malibu High teachers represented by PEER remain unknown. Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica-Malibu teachers union, did not return requests for comment on PEER’s involvement with teachers on the case. 

Dinerstein said PEER was first approached about the Malibu High School case after Hugh Kaufman, a senior EPA policy analyst whom The New York Times has called “a kind of living legend in the world of federal whistleblowers,” put a group of Malibu High teachers in touch with the Washington office. Kaufman also confirmed this on Tuesday.

“I felt the teachers needed some help and protection,” said Kaufman, who has been following the Malibu High environmental situation since it was made public in October.

Kaufman said he and PEER have worked together on several cases, including a case surrounding the BP oil spill in Louisiana and an ongoing whistleblower case Kaufman filed against the EPA over the federal agency’s decision to eliminate the ombudsman department. Kaufman was the former head of the ombudsman department where he helped investigate potential EPA cover-ups at New York’s Ground Zero until the department was eliminated in 2002.

On Tuesday, Malibu High parent Cassandra Wiseman also said she played a role in getting PEER involved following Kaufman’s suggestion. She wanted teachers to approach an advocacy group before they considered hiring legal representation.

“I practically begged the teachers to go to PEER after all the other litigation attorneys began swirling around [when the story first broke],” Wiseman said. 

A portion of this story originally appeared in the Santa Monica Daily Press.