Malibu High School (File photo)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is calling for soil testing and a site assessment of the entire Malibu High School campus.

The Washington D.C.-based advocacy group also wants the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to test for lead, arsenic, and benzene, not just Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), the cancer-causing contaminant that has thus far been the focus of the testing.

Last month, a group of 20 teachers wrote a letter to the district expressing fear that three recent cases of thyroid cancer, as well as rashes, migraines, and hair loss could be related to the work environment. The district closed some classrooms on the campus and relocated faculty and students.

Last week, district Superintendent Sandra Lyon announced that PCB levels in caulk samples taken from 10 locations at Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School were high enough to trigger Environmental Protection Agency involvement.

PCB was found at levels of at least 50 parts per million, the trigger level, but SMMUSD has not released the specific results. One member of the district’s environmental task force stated that the results would first have to be peer-reviewed. Lyon said that the results would be released soon.

The EPA will oversee a cleanup of the areas in which the levels are highest.

In 2011, SMMUSD removed soil from an area that was found to have PCBs. PEER is calling for further soil testing of the area, pointing out that post-removal the study done by Arcadis highlights several other “compounds of potential concern” including benzene, toluene, lead, arsenic, and cadmium.

Soils were only removed from parts of the project footprint, PEER said in its release.

“It is utterly irresponsible for the district to further delay investigations to discover the true extent of the contamination on campus,” said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein. “By taking evasive half-measures, the district is only fanning fears and breeding distrust.”

Lyon defended her actions, pointing out that they are now taking directives from government experts. She responded to critics who have consistently pointed to the fact that she previously said that new soil testing would be performed.

“I think I said that the second or third day of this when I didn’t even know where we were and I’m not an assessment expert,” she said “And clearly, now, that determination won’t be made by me, it’ll be made by the experts.”

Officials from the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, who will make that determination, said that the Arcadis’ report looks good after a preliminary examination. They will continue to review it to determine if further soil testing is needed.

PEER criticized the district’s updates, calling them “partial, conflicting, and unhelpful.”

“The district is only compounding its potential liability by trying to ignore rather than investigate what is really present on campus and why,” Dinerstein added.

PEER’s release insinuates that the district contradicted itself in a series of updates released last week, but Lyon said that has been falsely reported. The initial release stated that airborne levels of PCB were well below EPA standards, which is true. The second release reported that tests of two other samples — bulk and wiping, not airborne — came back higher than PCB trigger levels.

Communication came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting as Lyon suggested hiring an outreach consultant.

“It is hard to run a school district and keep everyone informed on everything that is going on all the time,” she said at the meeting. “We try, and I know we fall short often, so having some assistance there will be helpful.”

Boardmember Oscar de la Torre was particularly concerned with the issue of communication.

“We need to commit like never before to transparency because people need to trust in the Board of Education and they need to trust in the school district that we have their best interest in mind,” he said.

de la Torre spoke with some parents at last week’s meeting who were alleging that the district was involved with a cover-up. He backed Lyon’s leadership throughout the process.

“I think the superintendent moved expeditiously once the concerns came forward,” he said. “I can assure everyone that we’re doing what we can to communicate on every step that we’re taking. There will always be some criticism. From where I’m sitting I don’t see that the allegations of a cover-up are, at this point, justified.”

Lyon said that everything is safe at the schools and that now the district is following procedures laid out for them by the experts.

“I’m told that if there was danger, the EPA would not allow students on the campus,” she said.

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