This story was produced in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network.
The Monroe School District offered an extraordinary $34 million settlement to students and parents exposed to toxic chemicals that festered for at least eight years on a public school campus.
Although the school district proposed the striking settlement in November under court seal, preventing the public from seeing the offer, the $34 million figure appears in a separate court document obtained this past week by The Seattle Times.
In publicly available court documents, the school district doesn’t accept responsibility for hazardous conditions on the Sky Valley Education Center campus, which were detailed in a recent investigation by The Seattle Times and ProPublica. Instead, the district defended its cleanup efforts on campus, saying it acted appropriately to remove toxicants and inform parents.
Records show the school district was slow to clear out toxic material from the Monroe campus, even as pressure from parents and staff escalated and dozens reported illnesses.
As early as 2014, Monroe School District officials found a mixture of harmful conditions, including poor air ventilation and the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a banned, human-made chemical that the Environmental Protection Agency has linked to some cancers and other illnesses.
More than 200 parents, teachers and students filed a series of lawsuits against Monsanto, the chemical manufacturer of PCBs, for exposure to the toxicant at Sky Valley. Children and staff claim they became severely ill, reporting cancers, brain damage, hormonal problems and skin conditions.
Monsanto, which is now owned by Bayer, has gone to trial in two of the lawsuits, in which juries awarded 11 people a collective $247 million. Several others are awaiting trial.
Monsanto produced the PCBs, a chemical preservative for building materials, used in light fixtures and caulking in Sky Valley’s 1950s- and 1960s-era buildings. The light fixtures at Sky Valley started failing in 2014, leaking sticky, yellow PCB oil into classrooms.
The school district was slow to remove PCB-laden light fixtures from the campus, even after the EPA stepped in to guide officials and encourage a swift cleanup. At one point, school officials certified in writing — and assured parents — that all the PCB-containing material had been removed from Sky Valley, but an EPA inspection later revealed that wasn’t the case, The Times reported last month.
At least 15 of the King County Superior Court lawsuits, with 195 plaintiffs, also took aim at the Monroe School District, which opted to negotiate a settlement separately from Monsanto. The settlement excludes Sky Valley staff who sued Monsanto because Washington state law bars employees from suing employers for negligence in most cases.
The $34 million offer is the maximum allowed under the school district’s insurance policy “in order to protect [the Monroe School District’s] finances and its ability to continue operating,” according to a statement the district provided to The Times last week.
The district called the settlement a “prudent action under the circumstances.”
It isn’t clear if the $34 million is the highest settlement payout for a school district in the state, but the sum is about half as much as the district’s insurance service, Washington State Schools Risk Management Pool, spent in total last year on claims, according to risk management records. Washington state schools enroll about 1 million students.
The Monroe School District, which serves about 6,000 children, has an annual budget of $93 million.
The $34 million settlement figure first appeared in a report by a special master, an outside judge tasked with deciding how the sum should be split among the 195 claimants.
The report suggests that children who were exposed to harmful hazards, some of whom are now adults, should collect the bulk of the payout. Adults who were exposed would get the next highest payouts. And family members of those exposed would collect the least.
About a third of the settlement would go toward attorneys’ fees and costs. After subtracting the fees, each child exposed would collect roughly $171,000; each adult exposed would collect about $58,000; and each family member of someone exposed would collect about $2,300, according to estimates in the report.
Many plaintiffs experienced “significant, profound damages which they will have to live with for the remainder of their lives and for which they deserve to be compensated,” wrote the special master, King County Superior Court Judge Richard McDermott.
In offering context on the case, McDermott blasts Monsanto, writing that the chemical giant “is going to have to get serious about a global settlement that is large enough that the plaintiffs will have to pay attention.”
Last week, Monsanto filed a motion to cut parts of McDermott’s report or seal McDermott’s report entirely and bar any parties from publicly releasing it. Monsanto, which claimed the report made comments on topics that were still being litigated in trials, wasn’t involved in the Monroe School District settlement discussions.
“The anti-Monsanto statements in the report were not supported by any judicial fact-finding, not adopted by the court, and are damaging to a fair and impartial jury selection and trial process,” reads a statement provided to The Seattle Times by Bayer, which in 2018 acquired Monsanto, explaining the request to change or seal the reports.
King County Superior Court Judge Douglass North, overseeing the Sky Valley cases, hasn’t ruled on Monsanto’s request.
The cases have apparently pitted Monsanto and the school district against one another, with both parties arguing that the other is to blame for the health crisis at Sky Valley.
McDermott wrote in his report that the Monroe School District is “far less culpable than the product manufacturer.”
Monsanto, on the other hand, argued in court that the school district was repeatedly warned about PCBs but failed to take aggressive action.
To this day, the EPA is still working with the district on a cleanup, and Sky Valley, with about 700 students and teachers, remains open. In response to The Times’ story, the Monroe School District said it prioritizes the health and safety of students and continues to work on remediation efforts. The latest PCB testing on campus, carried out in August by a district contractor, showed negligible levels of the toxicant on campus, according to school district records.
Experts say hazardous PCBs are likely lingering in aging campuses across the state and country, but Washington does not require testing for PCBs in schools.
And although health districts are required to inspect campuses for environmental hazards, there is no requirement to enforce recommendations or remove certain hazards — a gap in state law that afforded school and health officials a defense against allegations of negligence at Sky Valley. State law also does not require school districts to disclose testing results to parents, students or teachers.
Those gaps have lingered despite the Washington State Department of Ecology flagging PCBs in schools as a priority in 2015, calling the hazard “especially concerning.” The department requested legislative dollars to survey schools and target potential hotbeds for PCB exposure, but because lawmakers delayed funding the request, Ecology only started surveying school districts last summer, starting with Eastern Washington districts.
Without a survey, there’s no way to know how many campuses across the state might be exposing students and staff to toxic conditions.
In response to The Seattle Times’ reporting on Sky Valley, state lawmakers and advocates plan to push for PCB testing and prioritize renovating or replacing older buildings.
Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who worked on state laws on lead testing in school drinking water, aims to discuss and propose a list of actions, including a mandatory timeline for remediating environmental hazards to prevent school districts from delaying cleanups.
Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, chair of the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, aims to convene a work group to tackle environmental hazards in schools.
Correction: This story was corrected at 11 a.m. on Feb. 6, 2022. According to a source familiar with the sealed settlement from the Monroe School District, it was extended to parents and students. An earlier version erroneously stated that teachers were also included.