Groups representing teachers and parents have sued the Santa Monica Malibu (Calif.) district to force the school system to remove hazardous materials from its facilities.
America Unites for Kids and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) filed the suit in federal court accusing the district of violating the federal Toxic Substances Control Act for failing to thoroughly decontaminate Malibu Middle and High School, and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.
The suit wants the court to order immediate removal of materials that already have been identified as containing toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in concentrations above those allowed by law, as well as expedited PCB testing of all school facilities.
PEER says in a news release that in October 2013, a group of 20 teachers complained of health problems, including thyroid cancers, and told district officials they believed the health issues were linked to contaminated classrooms. The suit contends that instead of directly dealing with PCBs embedded in caulk and other building materials, the district has spent nearly $4 million on consultants and attorneys, but so far has conducted only indirect “avoidance testing” such as air and dust sampling, which do not comply with federal law.
Gail Pinsker, a spokeswoman for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District said the district could not comment on pending litigation, but noted that the district is carrying out a PCB cleanup plan approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We are in compliance and will continue to follow the terms and obligations of EPA's approval," she said. "District leadership has been and continues to address serious questions about environmental health concerns, and we have relied on environmental experts and regulatory agencies to direct our work and assure us that our schools are safe."
The lawsuit say Independent tests beginning in July 2014 have identified levels of PCBs in caulk up to 7,000 times the legal limit, PEER says. The group also says that model Cindy Crawford, a Malibu parent who has since removed her children from the public schools, offered to pay for comprehensive source testing, but the district declined.
“The district had ample notice and more than ample opportunity to avoid litigation but has not moved a step toward complying with the law to insure safety for students and teachers,” PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein asserts. “Across the country, we see school districts faced with similar conditions opt for immediate and complete removal but, by comparison, Malibu school officials seem stuck in the sand.”
The suit alleges that teachers who expressed concern about working in classrooms where illegal levels of PCBs have been identified have been threatened with termination. Parents who asked to have their children excused from attending contaminated classrooms have been threatened with truancy violations.
Pinsker says the district is committed to the health and safety of students and staff.
"We are very aware that there are parents with great concern over this issue,' she says. "We are also aware that there are parents who are satisfied with the district's attention and action to these concerns and continue to support our steps under the direction of experts and regulatory agencies....We are continuing to take guidance and advice from the experts to determine what additional actions we will take moving forward. Our board continues to study, review and discuss these issues with the health and safety of students and staff in mind."
- View a copy of the lawsuit.
- View reports and documents from the Santa Monica-Malibu district about its responses to the environmental issues.