PCB Cleanup a Divisive Issue as School Begins

This summer at Malibu High, Malibu Middle and Juan Cabrillo Elementary schools, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) took steps toward PCB remediation, including the replacement of light fixtures, in what they call “an abundance of caution;” however, parent and employee groups maintain that the district’s actions are too little, too late.

According to an email sent to Malibu parents by Superintendent Sandra Lyon for the start of school last week, district staff and contractors “were working hard to make our schools safer, cleaner and more efficient,” over the summer, including work on PCB removal plans.

“We have replaced all light fixtures throughout Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. While old magnetic ballasts were replaced over a decade ago, some fixtures potentially contained PCB residue associated with the old ballasts. In an abundance of caution, we voluntarily removed all lighting fixtures and upgraded by replacing them with new electronic high-efficiency fixtures,” Lyon told parents and staff in her letter. The letter also detailed the removal of “verified” PCB-containing caulk in several classrooms.

This information came to The Malibu Times accompanied by a memo detailing the work done at the school sites. 

“We have successfully completed caulk removal, replacement, decontamination and encapsulation in rooms containing building materials in which PCBs had been identified and verified at concentrations above 50 parts per million,” the memo, provided by Environ, an environmental firm hired by the SMMUSD to handle the removal of PCBs, read.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were a common building material in the mid-20th century, but were later discovered to be hazardous substances and were broadly banned. Their discovery on the MHS campus was publicized in 2013.

In addition, the district sent out a message including statements from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that they say back up their methods of testing and remediation, which include mandatory removal of substances known to contain PCBs in concentrations above 50 parts per million (as previously mentioned).

Statements from America Unites, a citizens group committed to more extensive testing, remediation and removal of PCBs at Malibu schools, point to concerns of parents who feel the district has barely scratched the surface on toxic issues at the school.

“The district’s refusal to test or remove any further caulking in adjacent classrooms is irresponsible, immoral and puts children and teachers in harm’s way,” the America Unites statement sent to The Malibu Times read. “Lyon knows that she is forcing students and teachers to sit in classrooms with extremely high levels of PCBs at this very moment.”

America Unites is working closely with PEER, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, to push for testing of all caulk in the school, a step that the district insists goes beyond the bounds of EPA regulations.

“The EPA published a document called ‘PCBs in Building Materials – Questions and Answers’ on July 28, 2015,” Lyon’s letter read. “This updated document further validates the approach currently taken by SMMUSD at Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.”

America Unites, however, said the district is too swift in its self-congratulation, and is misreading the document.

“Nothing in the EPA’s guidance that the district refers to applies to any school where PCBs have already been identified over 50 ppm. It is directed at schools that were built in the PCB era but have not yet tested for PCBs,” the America Unites statement read. “This surely is not the situation in Malibu, as there is caulking throughout several buildings at extremely high levels. Nowhere in this guidance does it support the district’s legal strategy to claim only the inch of caulking they tested violates the law and use this as an excuse to avoid removing all like-caulking throughout a building.”

The EPA document stated “if PCBs are present or suspected of being present, EPA recommends the actions outlined in this document be taken by school administrators, building owners and building managers to reduce PCB exposures.”

The document points to cleaning procedures called “best management practices” and indoor air testing as effective ways to test for PCB exposure.

“Only air testing can determine if PCBs are present in indoor air after BMPs and other actions have been implemented.”


Legal action looms

According to information provided by America Unites, who with PEER filed a suit against the SMMUSD calling for swift action on the PCB issue, a hearing has now been scheduled.

“The court denied the district’s motion to dismiss and the parties are currently conducting discovery. The case is scheduled for trial on May 17, 2016, and we fully expect to prevail,” the America Unites statement read. It goes on to allege the district is avoiding cleanup of PCBs they know are above the EPA threshold of 50 parts per million. “They could easily test the caulking themselves and prove there are no PCBs over 50 ppm, but the district refuses to do this because they know that any further caulk testing will certainly reveal widespread violations.” 

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