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MHS buildings re-opened
More than half of all buildings tested for PCB contamination at Malibu schools were re-opened last week.
With the new school year beginning next week, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District re-opened five of the nine buildings on the Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School campuses that were tested for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), which is considered to be a “probable” cancer-causing substance by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Three other buildings and classrooms were re-opened between July 18 and July 28, which at press time leaves one more building tested for PCBs to be re-opened.
The re-openings followed summer-long environmental testing conducted by Environ – the environmental engineering firm contracted by SMMUSD – that indicated no threat to human health was posed by PCBs in the tested buildings, as was iterated in multiple SMMUSD press releases for each building’s re-opening.
But amidst the re-opening of buildings sprung a tinge of controversy. Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility claimed in an Aug. 7 press release that newly appointed MHS Principal Dave Jackson threatened to terminate teachers who refused to occupy rooms tested for PCBs.
While it is unclear if PEER cited a verbatim quote from Jackson, he allegedly said to teachers: “If you don’t go back on the first day I’ll give you a warning, if you don’t go back on the second day I will write you up, if you don’t go back on the third day I’ll write you up again, if you don’t go back on the fourth day, I’ll fire you.”
PEER claims the comments came were made during an Aug. 1, meeting between Jackson and the school’s department heads, when several teachers allegedly “voiced concern over returning to classrooms containing carcinogenic . . . PCBs at levels much higher than federal limits and which have not been remediated.”
Jackson, however, said the comment attributed to him by PEER was accurate.
“What I was trying to get across to my professional teachers is that we have a contract and we have a progressive discipline policy,” he said. “If the room meets the health benchmark standards of the EPA, they [the teachers] will be assigned a classroom [and] their job is to go into that classroom and teach our kids here at school.”
Jackson said that if the classroom did not meet the EPA’s criteria, then “nobody is going in that classroom.”
In total, nine buildings on the MHS and JCES campuses were subjected to air, surface wipe and soil testing over summer after parents raised concerns regarding PCB exposure.
“So far, the overall PCB test results continue to show that the classrooms and offices at Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School are either showing non-detectable levels or levels below EPA’s acceptable benchmarks,” said Doug Daugherty, managing principal at Environ.
The testing conducted by Environ, which utilized the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Best Management Practices for the testing and cleaning of PCBs.
An Aug. 4 SMMUSD press release states that, “to date, 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.”
In a July 31 letter to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Jared Blumenfeld – administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest Region – wrote that “based upon the science, EPA’s current recommended approach for school managers is to focus testing on air and dust for PCBs to assess the level of hazard, if any, to student and teacher populations.”
According to the District’s Aug. 4 press release, the EPA and Environ have focused their testing and cleanup strategy on the dust from caulk and other PCB-containing building materials.
“The existence of PCBs in building materials does not represent a danger in and of itself,” the press release states. “In order for PCBs to present a danger, there must be an exposure pathway and levels of PCBs that exceed health benchmarks. The pathways for exposure are inhalation or ingestion, not simply their presence in caulk.
“For that reason, the EPA recommends testing of air and surface dusts for PCBs, as these tests can determine whether occupants of the buildings are being exposed to PCBs and, if so, at what levels,” the release continued. “The EPA has adopted health-based thresholds or benchmarks for PCBs in air and dust and it is the EPA thresholds that have guided the District’s testing and other actions.”
In addition to the testing and cleaning, Blumenfeld wrote to Boxer that the light fixtures were inspected to ensure that PCB-containing ballasts were no longer present. While most ballasts were previously removed, several existing fixtures displayed signs of staining from previous PCB ballast leaks.
The testing and cleaning at Malibu High School concluded on Friday, Aug. 8, and Blumenfeld wrote in his letter to Boxer that the EPA is expected to provide its conclusions about Environ’s summer cleanup this week.