PCB Issue Sparks Tempers at SMMUSD Board Meeting

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The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District at its meeting last Thursday discussed the current state of affairs concerning PCBs, toxic chemicals present in caulk at Malibu High School, Middle School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary. 

The District hired Environ International Corporation as the consulting firm responsible for conducting testing. Environ Managing Principal Doug Daugherty stated that the current biannual cleaning schedule is ensuring safety in the schools. 

“The frequency [of cleaning] is more than adequate to address any residual exposure to PCBs in at least Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo [Elementary],” Daugherty said. Daugherty and his team also presented a huge amount of data concerning the environmental issue.

Over the course of the next five hours, though, the discussion turned personal -— an observation that is likely to surprise few who have followed the story since news first broke of PCBs on Malibu school campuses in 2013, since personal attacks are often the norm at SMMUSD meetings.

The difference at last Thursday’s meeting was that much of the discord was felt between school board members and not only between the many public commenters who came out to pressure the board to take further steps beyond what’s mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). SMMUSD has announced in the past that PCB levels in the air and dust are either non-detectible or within the health-based EPA threshold.

“We can’t trust, fully, the government to protect us at all times,” said board member Oscar De La Torre during board statements, in agreement with many of the commentators. 

De La Torre, who was the third of six board members to speak, then attempted to move that the board investigate accepting supermodel and Malibu mom Cindy Crawford’s August 2014 offer to put up the funds for comprehensive PCB testing. “If that offer is still on the table, I would like to make a motion to call Cindy Crawford back and accept the offer of comprehensive source testing,” De La Torre said. 

De La Torre was then informed that since it was a study session, the board could not make motions on the topic at Thursday’s meeting.

“You see, that’s how we lose credibility, because we can’t take action,” De La Torre responded.

This provoked an emotional response in fellow board member Richard Tahvildaran-Jesswein.

“I find it really disingenuous that you would suggest to make a motion like that when you know the process of this board, and you have been a part of this government for over a decade,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein said.

“But to go right to the place where you did to circumvent discussion … it’s really problematic to those of us who are absolutely committed to doing the right thing, to not even allow everybody on this dais to have an opportunity to speak to this subject,” Tahvildaran-Jesswein added. He later spoke in support of sticking to EPA suggestions.

Board member Craig Foster also spoke in support of making bolder actions beyond the EPA mandate.

“I’m terrified that we’re going to look back in 10, 20, 30 years and say ‘Oh my God,’” Foster said.

Later, board president Laurie Lieberman jumped in. “I don’t like it when you set others of us up as if we’re not honoring our students and our staff,” Lieberman told De La Torre and Foster.

Environ’s findings include cost estimates for various levels of remediation above and beyond those suggested by the EPA, including a range of $6.4 million to $12.6 million for caulk removal and substrate remediation, $10.4 million to $25.4 million for caulk and substrate removal, and $171 million to $295 million for demolition and rebuild of the schools. 

Substrates are surfaces, like bricks and fixtures, to which the caulk is adhered.

These estimates do not include all variables, such as temporary placement of students in other locations.

All experts were in agreement that the schools should eventually be rebuilt. “If you truly want to make sure you have a PCB-free structure, you’ve got to build a new structure,” Daughterty said.

“Essentially, the plan now that we have is to manage in place, because the air tests and the wipe tests are below the threshold, until you’re at the point where you can build a new building,” added Carol Serlin, another Environ principal.

Those plans are long in the future according to Lieberman, though, who stated the district doesn’t “have a choice.”

“We don’t have enough money, even if we spent every penny we have, to take care of all these buildings,” Lieberman said, “I think that’s the honest way to look at it.”

In the interim, Lieberman said, students are safe. “According to the science and the scientists, I have no reason … to doubt that our students and staff are safe,” Lieberman also stated, in agreement with the findings by Environ and the EPA.