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Independent test shows unprecedented PCB levels in MHS, Juan Cabrillo

Chris Bashaw, Assistant Editor
12:22 pm PDT July 28, 2014

A July 17 press release from a Washington D.C.-based whistle-blowing group stated polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) contamination at Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School is as much as 7,400 times greater than previously measured, citing results from an independent test.

The press release appeared at, the website for Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which is a nonprofit organization  advocating the issue and concerns it shares with Malibu-based advocacy group, Malibu Unites.

“Samples of contaminated caulking and dirt from rooms that were not previously tested by the District confirm PCBs at thousands of times the levels previously released to the public,” the press release states.

Who collected the samples and ordered the testing, however, is unclear.

The press release states a document detailing the results of the independent PCB testing was submitted by PEER and Malibu Unites as a response to what both groups call a “wholly inadequate” PCB clean-up plan by the District’s environmental firm Environ, but Malibu Unites President Jennifer deNicola said her organization did not order the testing and that the individual or organization that did “wishes to remain anonymous.”

Paula Dinerstein, an attorney with PEER, also did not say who ordered the testing, adding that members of PEER “think it’s irrelevant who ordered the testing,” saying the results of the tests were what mattered in the issue.

“If anyone doubts the validity of the testing, they should repeat these tests and see if those [the results] are correct,” Dinerstein said. “This is a severe threat to public health that shouldn’t get caught up in quibbles about who ordered the testing.”

What can be discerned about the independent testing, based upon a 30-page laboratory report from BC Laboratories obtained from Malibu Unites’ website, is that the 12 samples were collected directly from soil and caulk found in different locations on the MHS and Juan Cabrillo campus between May 10 and May 12 this year. 

Of the 12 collected samples, three surpassed the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal threshold for acceptable PCB concentration, which is set by the agency at or less than 50 parts-per-million (ppm). 

One sample is shown in the report to have tested at 190 ppm while the other two tested at more than 300,000 ppm, with handwritten notes on each lab report indicating the two samples came from a classroom at Juan Cabrillo and the MHS wood shop.

The 12 samples were originally submitted to Brad Silverbush of Frontier Analytical Laboratory in El Dorado Hills, California, but were transferred to BC Laboratories in early June.

“My client sent me the samples, asking me to have these tests run on them,” Silverbush said, adding that he transferred the samples to BC Laboratories for testing because his equipment was “tuned” to test smaller concentrations than he was asked to do.

The BC Laboratories report cites each sample tested for PCBs was done so by using EPA Method 8082 Aroclor/PCB.

Dinerstein said the laboratories used to test the samples were those the EPA uses for other tests and were certified by the agency to perform the tests, the results of which were verified by a third party she left unnamed.

While the EPA has previously determined certain MHS rooms have caulk with illegal PCB concentrations, Environ and the District – following the EPA’s Best Management Practices for PCB testing and remediation – have, to date, tested and cleaned only the dust and air in certain MHS buildings.

“I’ve been wondering about that for many months,” Dinerstein said. “They have Measure BB funds to remove toxic substances and have spent huge amounts of money on lawyers and consultants, so why haven’t they just spent money to remove the caulk? Clearly they are avoiding to do so, so maybe they [the District] think it’s too expensive or maybe that it will open a can of worms. It’s hard to understand why they wouldn’t just do it.”

But according to the most recent draft of Environ’s remediation plan, a Coastal Commission permit is needed for the demolition and renovation necessary to remediate PCB-containing materials in the MHS library and Building E Rooms 1, 5 and 8, at least. Due to an uncertainty as to when the permit can be acquired, Environ states in its plan that the District is prepared to follow the EPA’s Best Management Practices guideline – which involves periodic testing and cleaning of dust and air – for “up to 15 years” pending the permit’s issuance or the outright removal of PCB-containing materials, whichever occurs soonest.

“It is not clear how long it will take for that permit to be issued [and] it is likely that the intended remediation of ... PCB-impacted building materials would not be completed within the June 4, 2015, time frame [specified by the EPA],” the plan states.

When contacted for a response to the results published by PEER and Malibu Unites, EPA spokeswoman Nahal Mogharabi said the agency will evaluate the data alongside the data still being collected by the District and Environ this summer “to determine if the District needs to take additional steps to address PCB issues at their schools,” but did not respond before press time to questions concerning the nature or timeline of that evaluation.

SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon was out of her office last week and unable to be reached for comment before press time, but efforts to contact the District resulted in a referral to Lyon’s July 18 letter to the community, in which she criticized the report and actions of PEER and Malibu Unites.

“Samples were apparently surreptitiously gathered over a month ago and test data was released in a manner that was most certainly designed to incite concerns,” she wrote. “I do not dismiss individual or group rights to advocate for change, but to do so by scaring a community into believing that our District is hiding the truth and is indifferent to people’s health is wrong.”

Lyon wrote that the District will distribute information about its own testing results during the next few weeks, but did not outright challenge the validity of the results of the independent testing cited by PEER and Malibu Unites.