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.

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