The Monroe School District’s disgraceful handling of toxic pollutants in its Sky Valley Education Center will require years, and hundreds of millions of dollars, to adequately address. The behavior of the district leaders should be studied by every school administrator in the state as a lesson in what not to do, and should prompt the Legislature to pass stronger environmental laws for schools.
Finding hazardous polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, seeping from light fixtures throughout the school should have triggered a swift, strong and transparent response. The Environmental Protection Agency banned the known carcinogen in 1979. It is unacceptable — and should be illegal — for any school to knowingly expose students to old toxic lighting or other sources of PCBs. Monroe School District is the case study for why.
The district chronically failed its duties to ensure safety for everyone who entered the building and to fully disclose known risks, as investigative reporting by The Times and ProPublica revealed in a Jan. 23 story. Administrators minimized the problem, botched multiple slow rounds of cleanups, and kept exposing students, parents and teachers to dangerous material. For years. More than 200 people trace illnesses to PCBs that permeated the air and surfaces. Students had cognitive problems and skin issues. Girls hit puberty years ahead of schedule, even at age 6. Teachers got badly sick, too.
Yet administrators hide behind a 2021 consultant’s report that claims it acted defensibly. The local community is showing that the board has lost its confidence. In Tuesday’s election, the renewal of a Monroe schools levy that passed comfortably in 2018 by 557 votes was losing by roughly the same margin after two days of counting.
The history strongly suggests there were bad decisions. After a staff member noticed patterns of illness that seemed PCB-related, an April 2014 note from the principal assured “it is safe” — two weeks before school district inspectors arrived and found elevated PCB concentrations. After cleanup and testing in 2016 and 2017, the district assured the EPA that light fixtures containing PCBs had been removed. Federal inspectors two years later found this wasn’t true and wrote in 2020 requesting “more urgency” in cleanups. The school district says it has spent $1.6 million cleaning up Sky Valley. This purchased some lame efforts, such as having a suspected polluted carpet duct-taped down instead of thrown away, Snohomish County health inspector Amanda Zych reported in 2015.
The severity of negligence is beginning to be revealed in courtroom penalties. A jury last July awarded three teachers who suffered brain damage after working there $185 million. A $62 million verdict followed in November in a separate case filed by students and parents. Those faulted Monsanto, maker of the PCBs. More lawsuits await trial. The school district has put up a $34 million settlement offer to students and parents.
The Legislature must act. A school district has no legal requirement to remove hazardous materials it finds, or to tell parents about some toxic chemicals on site — including PCBs. The state needs laws that correct this deficiency. Lawmakers were late to put money into funding a statewide inventory of PCB risks on school sites, which only began last summer.
School leaders’ appalling disregard shown to the Sky Valley Education Center community of students, families and staff is a powerful argument for stronger action. No child or teacher should have to endure this risk.