In Face of Criticism, District Reopens More Malibu High Buildings

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Several parts of Malibu High, Middle School and Juan Cabrillo are closed off for environmental tests during the summer.

Amid the ongoing clash over testing and cleanup plans, the school district has reopened Malibu High’s cafeteria and auditorium building just weeks before classes begin, the fourth building to be tested and reopened this summer.

A memo sent from the district-contracted firm Environ to Superintendent Sandra Lyon said air and wipe samples taken from the building were “lower than the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] acceptable exposure levels” before and after the building was cleaned this summer.

Other Malibu High buildings that have been wiped, air-tested and reopened are buildings J (the old gym building), A and B/C. 

The news was announced in several press releases issued by Valerie Martinez, a public relations contractor brought on by the district in recent weeks to assist in the ongoing environmental scare at Malibu High, Middle School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary. 

Fervent critics of the district continue ramping up pressure and questioning why plans do not call for the testing of caulk, which has been shown to contain human carcinogens known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). The environmental scare first arose last October as three diagnoses of thyroid cancer and other thyroid illnesses among teachers caused some to fear the illnesses had been caused by building materials at the aging schools. 

Malibu Unites, a local group formed by concerned parents, accuses the district of remaining in Federal violation of the law by not removing materials that contain high levels of PCBs. Caulk samples taken and tested by Malibu Unites and D.C.-based group PEER showed some classrooms contain caulk consisting of up to “one-third” PCBs, according to the groups. They have asked the district to get in line with Federal language written in the Toxic Substance Control Act stating “PCB concentrations of 50 [parts per million] or greater present an unreasonable risk of injury to health.”

But Federal agencies in recent days seem to have gotten behind the district.

In a letter sent to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a regional director for the EPA said SMMUSD had been “responsive” to EPA protocol when it comes to dealing with PCBs. 

“The district has taken quick action to incorporate a cleaning and testing program at the high school that EPA believes will effectively address this pathway of human exposure,” director Jared Blumenfeld wrote. 

Blumenfeld sent the letter to Sen. Boxer’s office in response to a petition submitted by Malibu Unites urging Boxer to intervene in the situation and impose stringent guidelines in the handling of the environmental situation.

Testing dust and air samples, according to Blumenfeld, satisfies Federal standards.

He reiterated that the EPA’s researchers have found that “primary health concerns from PCBs in building materials derive from inhalation of contaminated air; and secondarily from contact with PCBs in dust and subsequent incidental ingestion.”

Malibu Unites, however, continued lambasting the district’s methods.

“The data that has been released by the district and the data that has been released by Malibu Unites/PEER is like comparing apples to oranges,” the group wrote in an email. “The apples (wipe and air testing) cannot tell the whole story. The oranges (caulk testing) will reveal the nature and extent [of] PCB contamination … throughout the campus.” 

Additionally, some have demanded the district set up portable classrooms before school begins on Tuesday, August 19, and, according to those within the school community, as many as 40 parents are considering not sending their children back to Malibu High, Middle School or Juan Cabrillo if they feel it is still not safe.

In light of Malibu Unites’ harsh critiques and a barrage of letters from worried parents, the district has maintained a tone of assurance.

“Environmental tests conducted over the summer have consistently found that students and staff are not in danger of unhealthy levels of exposure to PCBs, based on EPA’s health-based benchmarks,” the district said in a released prepared by Martinez. 

Lyon was grateful to have Blumenfeld’s support.

“While we’re now trying to do a better job of getting reliable information into our parents’ hands, I believe this EPA letter [from Blumenfeld to Boxer] will go a long way to validate for concerned parents that the district is following EPA’s testing guidelines,” she said.