Malibu High School Parents Demand a Role in Toxins Testing & Cleanup

Malibu High School Parents Demand a Role in Toxins Testing and Cleanup


Fri, Mar 21, 2014 at 4:39 PM
la weekly

  • Jennifer deNicola of Malibu Unites for Healthy Schools demands a role for parents in toxin testing.

Reiterating their distrust toward the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, and pressing hard for new toxins testing at Malibu High School, 50 parents and students last night floated a plan to choose their own environmental testing expert – who would work alongside the district-appointed environmental firm, Environ.

Controversy has gripped the pricey coastal community since October, when it was reported that Malibu school officials had failed to fully alert parents or teachers to toxins unearthed at the high school during a 2010 environmental review. The toxins – including PCB’s, chlordane, arsenic, lead and others – prompted the school district to order major soil removal in 2011. Some critics claim the toxins caused numerous ailments and even cancer among teachers and students.

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  • A Malibu crowd at the SMMUSD Board of Education on March 20 demands answers.

Environ is now working under the supervision of the federal Environmental Protection Agency Region 9 and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control to ascertain if the high school property is safe.

But outspoken critics of the district’s past behavior say that’s not good enough.

A new group of parents, teachers, medical and scientific advisors, calling itself Malibu Unites for Healthy Schools, has launched a website at and is seeking direct input into the toxins-testing process and any cleanup that may be needed.

Jennifer deNicola, president of Malibu Unites, told the board:

“The current process you have in place for the community and parents to verify the accuracy of the district’s work will create a stigma that will taint the campus for years to come. It is in everyone’s best interest to remove that stigma, which can only occur if the affected community can verify the testing, the results of the testing and remediation with their own expert.”

DeNicola says her group has interviewed environmental firms and is still seeking its own outside expert. They’re also demanding that the district communicate with them promptly, practice full transparency and that their group be given immediate access to raw information, the results of comprehensive testing and any identification made of the possible source of the toxins.

More than a dozen parents voiced their concern to the board and to Malibu City Councilmember John Sibert and Hamish Patterson, a candidate for city council.

Patterson told LA Weekly:

“I think it’s real simple … that testing must commence, that’s just phase one of everything getting alright. If the test showed that it’s a clean bill of health, then everything is alright. But if it’s not, it opens up a Pandora’s Box of remediation. How are you going to handle that, what are we going to do with our kids? And I think that’s why the school district’s been dragging its feet, and the city council’s been dragging its feet and the teachers union’s been dragging their feet. And when they say they’ve only known for six months, that’s not true at all. When is it alright? When people stop lying to a community.”

DeNicola says, “We are moving forward and we are doing it in a positive way.”

The Weekly reported earlier this week that while some Malibu residents fear that chemicals found in soil and window putty at the school may have caused thyroid cancer among three teachers, such fears may be unfounded.

The National Cancer Institute and many other cancer experts agree that the only known environmental cause of thyroid cancer is radiation. No radiation source has been found at Malibu High School, and most thyroid cancer is believed by scientists to be hereditary.

The newspaper also quoted thyroid cancer expert Marcia Brose, director of the Thyroid Cancer Therapeutics Program at the University of Pennsylvania, who says thyroid cancer is very common and, “it’s not surprising that you might discover some people who have had thyroid cancer, and they might know somebody [who has it] nearby. Unless there’s really clear radiation risks in the area, I don’t think that there’s any evidence for thinking that their thyroid cancer is caused by an environmental toxin, particularly.”

Brose also adds, however, that science is always discovering new connections, “So never say never.”

EPA senior policy analyst Hugh Kaufman in Washington, D.C., an outspoken critic of the way Malibu High School officials and school district leaders have conducted themselves, noted that Brose has in the past worked as a consultant to Bayer, a producer of chemicals.

Kaufman says there is room to challenge the conventional wisdom among scientists and cancer institutes. Kaufman notes that some peer-reviewed research into people who lived or worked around high levels of PCBs and other toxins shows that they may be susceptible to some forms of thyroid disease – such as goiter and overactive and under-active thyroids.

One peer-reviewed study by Lawrence M. Schell, Mia V. Gallo, Melinda Denham and others, for instance, notes that “It is well documented that acute exposure to high levels of persistent organic pollutants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), p,p′-dichlorophenyldichloroethylene (p,p′-DDE), and hexachlorobenzene (HCB), can affect human health including thyroid function.”

Officials agree to test soil at Malibu schools

Sam Pearson, E&E reporter

Published: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Months of back-and-forth over suspected soil pollution at some of California’s choicest public schools may be coming to an end.

The state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has proposed conducting comprehensive soil testing at three adjacent Malibu schools where teachers, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and other groups have been sounding the alarm since last year that troublesome chemical problems were present at the sites that overlook the Pacific Ocean.

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Sandra Lyon, who the community groups had harshly criticized for not doing more to inform them of the cleanup status, directed the district’s environmental consultant Environ to work with state officials to develop a cleanup plan. The contractor will present its recommendations at public Board of Education meetings, Lyon wrote to PEER late last month. Lyon formally notified the board of her decision at a meeting last week.

In an email sent to a community group, Department of Toxic Substances Control environmental scientist Maria Gillette said the agency had proposed conducting a soil sampling effort similar to “but more comprehensive” than an earlier sampling performed by a contractor at the school sites in 2011. The testing would likely include a search for PCBs, pesticides, metals and volatile organic compounds at Malibu middle and high schools, as well as adjacent Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, Gillette wrote.

The 2011 testing, performed by a contractor working on a renovation project, found organochlorine pesticides, lead, arsenic, cadmium, benzene and toluene in areas of the schools, prompting a growing community outcry for more information.

Some groups, including PEER, raised the possibility that the contamination was due to past World War II-era military installations in the area, which were once fairly common along the California coast (E&ENews PM, Feb. 25). But the Army Corps of Engineers has no records of former military sites in the immediate vicinity of the schools, Defense Department spokesman Dave Foster said.

While the Malibu case is getting attention because of its exclusive ZIP code, PCB contamination is a widespread problem throughout the country in schools built between 1950 and 1979, Gillette said. Indeed, PCBs have been some of the most common contaminants in U.S. school buildings.

U.S. EPA last year issued guidance to schools on PCB cleanup methods after more than 150 incidents of PCB contamination at schools in New York and New Jersey alone in the previous 15 months (E&ENews PM, Dec. 12, 2013).

A lawsuit brought in New York City by the group New York Communities for Change found between 800 and 1,400 city school buildings had PCB-containing ballasts, and the city has been implementing a cleanup plan estimated to cost $700 million to $1 billion (Greenwire, May 22, 2013).

The process also has helped a group of Malibu teachers organize with the assistance of PEER. The residents, calling themselves Malibu Unites, list dozens of supporters on their newly built website, including prominent celebrities who live in the area, like actor Martin Sheen, his wife, Janet, and their son actor Emilio Estevez. Model Cindy Crawford, who owns two beachfront homes in Malibu, also signed on as a supporter.

A group of teachers at the schools last year wrote to the district, calling for more investigation into the toxic contaminants thought to be at the site, suspecting that a series of health problems among staff members may be tied to harmful chemicals in their workplace (Greenwire, Nov. 26, 2013).

The group this week signaled it would shift its efforts to ensure the tests were performed properly.

“We need to do a thorough investigation of all three campuses in order to determine an accurate cumulative risk so that we can protect our children and teachers and ensure they are in a healthy, clean and safe environment,” Malibu Unites’ president, Jennifer deNicola, said in a statement.

Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools joins with Malibu Unites in its campaign for safety at Malibu Schools.

Posted: Friday, March 14, 2014 7:00 am

By Melissa Caskey / | 2 comments

A group known as Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools has merged with the newly formedMalibu Unites, aiming to fight for environmental safety at Malibu schools.

The two groups formed in the wake of environmental controversy at Malibu High School and Middle School when a group of teachers came forward with several health concerns last October, including three suffering from thyroid cancer. Controversy further erupted when it was revealed that toxic soils were found at Malibu High in 2010 and the school district did not notify parents about the situation.

Malibu Unites was founded in recent weeks to advocate for comprehensive testing of Malibu High, Middle and Juan Cabrillo Elementary schools as the school district embarks on a massive testing and cleanup endeavor.

“Today we are faced with the great responsibility of removing toxins in our schools so that our children and teachers have a safe haven in which to learn and to teach,” the group wrote on its website.

The organization’s Advisory Council includes recognizable names such as Cindy Crawford, Emilio Estevez and City Councilman Skylar Peak. View the full list here. Jennifer DeNicola, a local parent who became heavily involved in advocacy for safety when the health scare first broke, is also listed among the leaders.

Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools originally formed in October and hired a consultant who recommended the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District test campus grounds for cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The Malibu Parents for Healthy Schools group decided to join Malibu Unites “to continue to fight for environmentally safe schools. Parents, teachers, community leaders, scientists, medical experts, and environmental groups have come together to form this new group,” according to a statement released on Thursday.

The Santa Monica-Malibu school district signed a contract with Environ last week to conduct all campus testing and cleanup. The cost of the contract has yet to be revealed, but the district has already spent around $500,000 on the environmental situation.

Click Here for full Malibu Times Article

Because of Public Pressure, District directs Environ to test the Soil at MHS and JC

Because of Public Pressure, District directs Environ to test the Soil at MHS and JC

The following letter was sent to the task force on March 10th, 2014. At the board meeting there were several people that spoke during public comment about the necessity of soil testing on both campuses (especially since the recent ammouncement of WWII activity in the area) and comprehensive testing of the classrooms for multiple toxins. Oscar de la Torre pushed the rest of the board and Sandra Lyon to test the soil. The pressure from the parents in collaboration with Oscar de la Torre was successful in getting Sandra Lyon to put into print the soil will be tested. Now we need to make sure it is full and comprehensive testing aimed at ensuring that our children are not exposed to any toxins from the soil.

The next board meeting is March 20th in Malibu at City Hall. I hope each of you will come with your families for at least 1 hour (approx. 6-7pm) so that the board and Sandra Lyon can see how large a group United we all are. During Public Comment, we will ask for a show of hands from teachers, students and parents.

We need to keep the district accountable for their actions and help guide the investigation to leave no stone unturned in addition to oversight of the work they perform. Our children and their teachers deserve a healthy, clean and toxin free environment. Together and united we can make that happen.

-Malibu Unites

Jennifer deNicola


Dear Task Force,

As I presented  to the Board of Education in its general meeting on  Thursday, March 6, 2014, Environ, the newly hired environmental engineering firm,  is in the process of gathering information to  create a plan for investigation of the Malibu High School (MHS) and Juan  Cabrillo Elementary School (JCES) campuses, as part of our goal to assure school health.  Their work has begun, and their first step is focusing on data collection.   This includes reviewing all documents pertaining to the properties and environmental work done to date, including the work conducted by Mark Katchen, who did our preliminary testing.   Last Thursday, Environ employees walked the Malibu High School campus with district staff and Mark Katchen.   I want to clarify a few points to address school community members’ questions.


  1. Mr. Katchen is no longer affiliated with the environmental investigation in any way; as part of Environ’s research,  he was asked  to provide a tour of the site and specify the work that he conducted to date.
  2. Environ will outline a plan to implement best management cleaning practices throughout the district, as appropriate.
  3. We have made clear to Environ that further testing, including soils testing at MHS and testing at JCES, must be included in the work plan.


I have requested a timeline from Environ, which I will make available to you.


Thank You,

Sandra Lyon


Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District

Malibu Unites Press Release: March 7, 2014




Malibu, March 7, 2014 — Malibu parents, teachers, community leaders, public figures, scientists, medical experts, and environmental groups have come together to form Malibu Unites, a non-profit group that will advocate for healthy, environmentally safe schools.

The current environmental issues at Malibu public schools date back to 2010, when pesticides, PCBs and other toxins were found in the soil on the Malibu High School Campus. This occurred when the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District ordered an Environmental Impact Report as part of the proposed remodel of the Malibu campus. Arcadis, the environmental firm hired by the school district, stated pesticides and PCBs were present in the middle school quad “at concentrations that presented an unacceptable health risk.” During the summer of 2011, unbeknownst to parents and teachers, 48 truckloads of toxin-contaminated soil were removed in a remediation effort while summer school was in session.

Following the soil removal, four teachers have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a disease with an expected annual incidence of less than 2 per 10,000 Americans. As of today, there are at least 10 known cases of thyroid disease among teachers as well as other serious health concerns, and at least four students struggling with autoimmune health issues.

In 2013, PCBs in 5 of 10 tested middle school classrooms exceeded Federal regulatory limits and Malibu High now requires remediation under EPA oversight. The three classrooms with the highest PCB levels are the rooms in which three teachers with thyroid cancer teach. Three years after the initial discovery of toxins in the soil, we still do not know their source nor do we know the extent to which toxins may contaminate the rest of the campus, including sports fields and playgrounds.

To date, the district has spent over $500,000 on consultants and attorneys but has accomplished only preliminary testing. Malibu Unites has formed to advocate for a fiscally responsible focus on comprehensive testing, any necessary remediation, and ensuring that children and teachers can teach and learn in a healthy environment. The organization’s first goal is to advocate for the parents and community members to execute a comprehensive plan with the district to identify and remove any toxic substances present at Malibu High/Middle Schools and the adjacent Juan Cabrillo Elementary School. On a broader scale, we plan to work with California’s public officials on creating Parents’ Right to Know Legislation. Our Congressional and Senate officials have already expressing strong interest in advocating for this necessary law to protect all parents and children in the state.

The Malibu Unites website can be found at

Board OKs State (DTSC) Oversight of Malibu High Cleanup

Board OKs State (DTSC) Oversight of Malibu High Cleanup

Dept. of Toxic Substances Control will oversee Malibu High/Juan Cabrillo investigation and cleanup.

By Knowles Adkisson and Melissa Caskey / The Malibu Times |

The school district board of education on Thursday approved a $40,000 contract for the California Dept. of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to oversee an ongoing environmental investigation at Malibu High School, after the discovery of cancer-causing contaminants on campus triggered the involvement of state and federal authorities.

The DTSC will give written commentary to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s environmental consultant, Environ, as it performs testing and cleanup at both Malibu High and adjacent Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.

While the contract is called a “voluntary investigation agreement,” district CFO Jan Maez said Tuesday that retaining DTSC “wasn’t our choice” after the discovery of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at five locations at Malibu High last year.

“This was not something we had the option for,” Maez said.

According to Maez, the state agency will ensure the work of Environ meets state standards for public outreach, removal of contaminants and other measures.

“DTSC’s role in this is to make sure what the district’s being advised to do are appropriate measures,” Maez said.

Meanwhile, both members of the school board and the Malibu community expressed initial befuddlement about the new contract.

The contract with Environ, a private firm contracted by the district last month to handle soil and air testing at the campus, has not been finalized and the firm has yet to put together a cleanup plan or cost estimate for its services.

Jennifer Denicola, one of the High environmental task force, said the agreement failed to make mention of the DTSC’s specific plans at Malibu High or Juan Cabrillo Elementary. parents who serves on a Malibu

“I would like to see [the DTSC’s] plan and how they are going to work with Environ to test the soil for all contaminants and the classrooms for contaminants other than PCBs,” Denicola told The Malibu Times.

Boardmembers Oscar de la Torre and Laurie Lieberman also expressed skepticism with the contract in response to questions raised by Denicola at last Thursday’s board meeting, with Lieberman stating the contract “makes everybody uneasy, with good reason.”

But Tuesday, Lieberman said it was too soon to expect specifics on the level of DTSC’s involvement.

“This is the standard agreement that [the DTSC] use…I just don’t think there’s any way out at this point since no one has decided what’s going to be tested or where it’s going to be tested,” Lieberman said Tuesday. “I think that’s why it is a little vague. The reality will get nailed down as we move forward.”

Once Environ has completed its testing, the district is required to submit the findings to the DTSC for review.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District has retained the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to oversee its consultant, Environ, as it tests and removes potential contaminants at Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.

Dept. of Toxic Substances Control’s role in Malibu High cleanup 

Here are DTSC’s responsibilities, as laid out in the contract’s scope of work:

1) DTSC will coordinate and attend meetings with both consultants and community stakeholders, coordinate with other regulatory agencies that may be involved, issue fact sheets and notices, and insure that project information is available online to the public.

2) Review plans to remove the contaminants and propose any additional work or areas of additional concern, if needed. Following an initial review, a scoping meeting will be held to discuss whether further tests are necessary.

3) Ensure that Environ is following state guidelines in conducting a Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA), to determine whether removing substances at the site poses a threat to human health or the environment.

4) Review and comment on plans for public participation to be made by Environ, which are to include a scoping meeting to make sure interested public and community are involved in the DTSC’s decision-making process. Environ must also prepare a community profile to determine the community’s knowledge of the site; types of community concerns; prepare a community mailing list; and proximity of the site to homes, churches and daycares, among other factors.

5) Review and approve fact sheets to be submitted by Environ to be submitted to a community mailing list.

6) Review and approve a Health and Safety plan by Environ to cover measures to be taken during testing and remediation to protect the health and safety of workers at the site as well as the general public from exposure to hazardous waste, substances or materials. The plan should “describe specific personnel, procedures and equipment to be utilized.”

Contracts Scrutinized at SMMUSD Meeting

Malibu Surfside News

Concerns regarding the generality of a contract between the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District – for the former’s oversight of environmental testing at local schools – were raised Thursday, Feb. 6, during a SMMUSD Board of Education meeting.

The District’s contract with the DTSC is still in its drafting phases, but by-and-large, the statewide agency would act as an overseer as the District undergoes testing and cleaning of other schools in Malibu – including Juan Cabrillo Elementary School – affected by polychlorinated biphenyl and other possible contaminations.

Assisting the District with the actual development and implementation of testing and cleaning plans would be Environ International Corporation, an engineering firm that has assisted the District with addressing environmental concerns in Malibu’s schools.

“We [hire] the people who will be conducting the testing and preparing the reports, the DTSC’s role is more of an oversight agency,” Assistant Superintendent Janece Maez said. “This sets the stage for Environ – and it will be their [Environ’s] plans that will be vetted publicly – but it will be the DTSC that moves forward and asks if what’s being done is appropriate.”

While a contract with Environ has yet to be drafted, the so-far lack of specificity regarding Malibu’s schools in the draft contract with the DTSC irked some members of the community.

“With the DTSC, I got a contract from them that I read and it was very general,” said Jennifer Denicola, a Malibu parent who was on the environmental task force that investigated the PCB contamination at Malibu High School. “It’s just their [the DTSC’s] standard contract and there’s very little information about Malibu.”

While “Exhibit C” of the contract laid out the scope of work to be performed by the DTSC, it does not include language or terms pertaining to Malibu’s schools or the environmental concerns at them.

Board member Oscar de la Torre said he was also concerned about the contract’s lack of specificity regarding scope of the testing that would be conducted in Malibu schools.

“One thing I wanted to know in terms of soil testing, the [Environmental Protection Agency] is looking at indoor air quality and building materials such as caulking, but then DTSC is going to be focusing on soil, so what about water?” he said. “I think it would be important to ensure we have comprehensive research to capture all of that in the scope of work.”

SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon, however, indicated that she felt the Board members may have been jumping the gun with concern over the specifics of testing plans that have yet to be developed with Environ, and which the DTSC would oversee.

“At this point, to start talking about what a testing plan might look like, we’re a little bit ahead of ourselves,” Lyon said. “That’s why we’re waiting to get the contract finalized with Environ.”

Speaking to de la Torre, Board member Laurie Lieberman said she shared his underlying concerns, adding that the vagueness found in the DTSC contract might also be mirrored in the Environ contract during their initial stages, but that imprecision could be resolved when the DTSC and Environ begin working together.

“A lot of this is vague and I think this makes everybody uneasy with good reason, but I think we’re going to have to go forward and work with the experts who have worked with the DTSC experts for years,” she said.

Prefacing that he is “suspicious of anyone that calls themselves an expert,” de la Torre said in response to Lieberman that he wants to ensure the Board members have an opportunity to review the Environ contract, as well as the scope of services contained within, before finalization.

“I feel confident that we hired someone [Environ] that has a good reputation to do the work, I just want to make sure that the board of education understands the scope of the work and that we have influence over the scope of the work,” he said.

New Firm to Handle Malibu High PCB Removal

By David Mark Simpson and Melissa Caskey / The Malibu Times

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education last week hired a new firm to oversee the next phase of environmental testing at Malibu High School, following months of health concerns over possible contamination at the campus.

The board gave district staff approval to negotiate terms with environmental firm Environ. The firm would conduct soil testing at the campus, as well as additional air quality testing. But the absence of cost estimates for the testing raised questions among the board.

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Malibu classrooms closed because of cancer scare to be cleaned

MALIBU HIGH SCHOOL — It’s going to be a busy winter break for the Malibu school campuses.

Several rooms at the high school and middle school will be tested for cancer-causing PCBs, cleaned, and tested again all before the end of the break, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Superintendent Sandra Lyon announced in a letter to parents and staff Thursday night.

The safety of the Malibu High School campus has been questioned since October when 20 staff members, including three diagnosed with thyroid cancer, wrote a letter to the district complaining of a variety of health-related issues.

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Some Malibu High PCB Samples Well Over EPA Trigger Levels

By David Mark Simpson / Special to The Malibu Times

PCB levels in one sample taken from Malibu High School are 37 times the level required to trigger Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) involvement, according to test results released by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Tuesday evening.

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