This article was produced for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network in partnership with the Seattle Times. Subscribe to Dispatches to get stories like this as soon as they’re published.
Washington state lawmakers are expected to spend $1.5 million to remove toxic fluorescent lights from schools and another $125,000 to study environmental risks and create new standards to protect students from exposure to harmful substances.
In asking for the funding, lawmakers cited an investigation by The Seattle Times and ProPublica of a Seattle-area campus where children and staff were exposed to a combination of harmful conditions, including high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls. , or PCB, a banned chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to cancer and other diseases.
More than 200 students, parents and teachers at Sky Valley Education Center in Monroe have filed lawsuits claiming they developed cancer, brain damage, hormone problems and other illnesses after being exposed to PCBs on campus . Two of the lawsuits resulted in extraordinary jury awards against Monsanto, the maker of the chemicals, totaling nearly $250 million to 11 people. At least 15 trials are ongoing.
The school district knew as early as 2014 that PCBs were leaking into classrooms from aging fluorescent lights, but was slow to respond to the ongoing crisis, The Times and ProPublica reported.
The Legislature budget proposal, approved by the State House and Senate on Wednesday but pending governor approval, allocated $125,000 to the Department of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Health University of Washington to review policies on environmental conditions in schools. The research will focus on several contaminants, including PCBs, lead, asbestos and mould. The study is scheduled for December.
“These are first steps,” said Democratic State Rep. Gerry Pollet, one of the few lawmakers pushing for the funding. “If we have a report to the Legislative Assembly in December, we will have a first look at what standards should be adopted to protect the health of children in schools, how to fix them, and from there we will learn how much we should fund. “
Another $1.5 million is allocated to the state departments of education and ecology to remove fluorescent lights known to contain PCBs; the substance was banned by the EPA in 1979, but it is suspected to persist in building materials and fixtures on aging campuses across the country.
Those same lights leaked liquids containing oily PCBs into Sky Valley classrooms, releasing the chemical into the air and onto surfaces. On this campus alone, it cost more than $1.6 million to remove PCB-laden materials, including carpets, furniture and air filters.
The goal is to replace fluorescent lights with energy-efficient alternatives, which will save school districts money in the long run, said state Rep. Alex Ramel, a Democrat who also made push for funding after reading the Times report. Replacing lights is “the lowest fruit there is,” he said. “It would make sense even if they weren’t dumping toxins in the schools.”
Pollet acknowledged that the $1.5 million in the proposed budget will not cover the full cost of removing toxic materials from schools. But he called the funding an “urgent and easy band-aid” and the first of many steps.
In addition to funding, lawmakers have proposed giving the Washington State Board of Health the power to take action against classroom contamination.
The proposal would have overturned a rule that prohibits the board of health from creating and enforcing rules about conditions in school buildings – an exclusion that is unique to schools. This wording was removed in the final stages of negotiations and was not included in the last budget.
“The crazy thing is that the board of health can pass a rule protecting people from exposure to contaminants in state government buildings, for example, but not in schools,” Pollet said. .
Although the board of health is responsible for maintaining safe conditions on campuses, the agency cannot act without the approval of the Legislative Assembly.
This gap and others allow contaminants to infect schools across the state.
At Sky Valley, health inspectors repeatedly flagged hazards on campus as early as 2014 and made recommendations to address the issues. But over the years, PCB levels have spiked, even after multiple cleanup attempts, state and federal environmental documents have revealed.
Under Washington state law, however, health districts are not required to enforce recommendations they make after inspecting schools. Likewise, school districts are not required to act when inspections detect certain toxic chemicals, a shortcoming noted in the Times and ProPublica investigation and later cited in state budget requests.
Although the budget wording does not address these specific shortcomings, the proposal describes the study as a precursor to the evolution of “policies and standards in Washington schools.”
In the Sky Valley trials, juries awarded 11 parents, teachers and students a total of $247 million in verdicts against Monsanto. Other Sky Valley families are bringing similar cases, one of which is currently on trial.
Bayer, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, denied the allegations both in the lawsuit and in a statement to The Times. The company is appealing the jury’s verdicts.
The Monroe School District, which serves about 6,000 students, has agreed to a $34 million settlement with parents and students exposed to PCBs, court documents filed last month revealed. The extraordinary settlement was filed under court seal and is the maximum allowed under the school district’s insurance policy. The settlement amounts to approximately one-third of the district’s total operating budget.
In court documents, the Monroe School District defended its actions at Sky Valley, saying it communicated the issues to parents and handled the PCBs appropriately. The filing notes that Washington law only generally requires schools to maintain safe conditions, but “none of these requirements are specific to PCBs in building materials.”
In a statement to The Times, the district said it supports legislative interest in strengthening testing and remediation standards in schools, adding that such efforts are “most effective when the legislature also provides funding.”
The school district continues to clean up Sky Valley of PCBs under the direction of the EPA, which has yet to give the school a clean bill of health after eight years of remediation efforts. School district records show, however, that the latest on-campus testing, conducted by a district contractor in August, found only minor levels of the chemical.