Despite PCB Setback, Construction Continues at MHS

PCBs were found in some of the shellac coating in the woodshop.

“Do you remove a building if it’s not a health hazard? If you want a new campus, maybe that’s what you want,” Carey Upton, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District chief operations officer, mused during a tour of Malibu High School last month.  

As part of the main modernization project on campus, buildings that are not being remodeled or demolished will be modernized, including updated windows, paint, flooring, fire alarms and more.

The kitchen and theater building, which served as a cafetorium for the original middle school, was mostly renovated in the past; the district looks to take out all pre-1979 doors and test the caulking surrounding all windows and doors for polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs.

“We are a leader in the state in doing this,” Upton said about the testing.

He stressed multiple times that “anything that’s being removed will be tested,” but did not speak to testing all buildings on campus.

Some parents, including local activist and MHS parent Jennifer deNicola, do not think it is enough.

“They [SMMUSD] claim safety and best interest, but that requires comprehensive testing of all building materials for source PCBs. Pretending something isn’t there doesn’t equate to safety,” deNicola said in a statement to The Malibu Times 

Upton acknowledged that some in the community are “never going to be happy unless [PCB levels are] zero,” but bottom line, he said: “There is no scenario that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] would require us to tear down the building.” 

According to a spokesperson for the EPA, Region 9, the agency has been working with the district since late 2013 to address the issue, including protocols for addressing any PCB remediation waste.

“Mostly, I’m agnostic about which way we do it,” Upton added. “I really don’t want us to spend money on stuff that doesn’t make sense for health purposes because I’d rather spend [on] stuff that impacts kids’ education.” 

Meanwhile, parents have expressed interest in a renovated theater space.

“We only had one dressing room for the boys and girls, and one restroom that was not accessible up to current accessibility standards,” Upton said.

Construction for two dressing rooms and two restrooms is scheduled to begin this summer with an end date sometime in the fall. As for the actual theater, no plans for renovation are currently on the table.

Elsewhere on campus, photo lab construction will continue into the summer with an agenda including new flooring, new ceiling tiles and finishing ductwork for new heaters.

As for science laboratories, once construction is complete on building AB and renovations are finished, MHS students will have access to a total of eight science labs.

In building G, which includes music, art and special education, window renovations were started last year; this year, the district is working on flooring, which means that it will be tested for PCBs. The special education suite has newly installed walls, paint, a washer-dryer, cooking area and more “for those students who might need additional help to just live.” 

Of particular concern is the woodshop—in 1966, plywood was installed in the room, but both the plywood and sealing shellac contained levels of PCBs. 

Through anomalies in testing, the school district has determined that the shellac coating the walls was not the same throughout the woodshop; high levels of PCB (more than 50 parts per million) were found in only certain shellac. 

Upton said there were three ways to solve the issue: The EPA’s route includes taking all the wood out and replacing it; the more cautious would take all the wood out and put an epoxy paint on the walls so people would not be able to touch the PCB-infected area; and lastly, the extremely health conscious would remove all the plywood but that would result in $4-4.5 million spent (at which point, a new building would make more sense).

The EPA is due to choose a suitable course of action for dealing with PCBs in buildings D and G by the school board’s March 1 meeting.

Parents are also eager for renovations to the old gym. 

This summer, construction will begin on gutting the current locker room areas, which Upton called “old and sad,” and adding fitness and dance rooms. 

Though the renovations are expected to last into the fall semester, Upton said the gym will remain open and that this was “a long time coming.”

If all goes according to plan, Upton said, “By the summer of 2020, we will have finished the new building, we will have renovated and modernized the existing buildings, we will have finished the parking lot and made all these portables go away.” 

Or, he jokes, by that time, everyone will give up and decide they want a new campus.