The Santa Monica-Malibu School district must remove toxic PCBs from two of its Malibu schools but has until December 2019 to finish the job, according to a ruling issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson.
Anderson issued his ruling in a lawsuit brought by a nonprofit citizens' group, America Unites for Kids.
The decision ends a headline-grabbing battle – complete with celebrity parents – between the citizens' group and the school district that erupted after testing of window caulking in some classrooms turned up levels of the banned chemical that were hundreds and thousands of times higher than allowed by federal law.
During the nearly three-year long fight, the district refused parents’ pleas to remove contaminated caulk from its Malibu schools. Instead, the district argued that it had done enough to keep students safe by removing PCBs it found during testing of a limited number of classrooms and by following EPA guidelines – including vacuuming floors and damp wiping surfaces.
In his ruling, Anderson sided with the plaintiffs in finding the district in violation of a federal law that says all building materials containing PCBs at or above 50 parts per million must be removed.
But the judge accepted the school district's request that it have until the end of 2019 to remove the PCBs as part of a renovation project at two of its Malibu campuses, Malibu High School and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School.
The district expressed satisfaction with Anderson's decision.
"With the planned modernization already in the works at Malibu High School and nearly complete at Cabrillo, which is the court’s endorsed remedy, we’re very pleased to now turn back to our primary purpose of providing quality education for our students," said Board of Education President Laurie Lieberman.
The plaintiffs also found reasons to cheer.
"We wish that the remediation had been ordered even sooner, but we’re very happy that we won the merits of the case," said Paula Dinerstein, attorney for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a nonprofit group which had joined with America Unites for Kids in filing the lawsuit.
While Anderson dismissed Dinerstein's group as a plaintiff for lack of standing, she said the judge's ruling sets a precedent, "because this is the first citizen suit about PCBs in schools, and the court confirmed that citizens can get enforcement when EPA has failed to do so."
The decision also confirms that the requirement for PCB remediation can be based on a sampling of materials, as happened in Malibu, said Dinerstein.
"You don't need to have tested [the caulking around] every single door and window," she said.
Nationwide, thousands of public schools built between the 1950s and the late 1970s are believed to be contaminated with toxic PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were used widely in building materials such as window caulk before Congress banned them in the late 1970s.
The EPA considers PCBs probable carcinogens that are also associated with, among other things, neurobehavioral and immunological problems in children.