Contaminated Factory Last Place to Put a New School

By Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan and Councilman Eric Gioia, NY Daily News
October 2, 2007

Be our guest

Deputy Mayor Walcott's "Be Our Guest" piece last week is a disingenuous public relations ploy to protect mayoral power and avoid accountability at the expense of the health of New York City's schoolchildren and teachers.

At issue is the city's claim that plans to lease contaminated factories and turn them into schools need not be publicly disclosed, voted upon by the City Council or go through the state's standard environmental review process.

Walcott admits there is a problem, but still suggests this administration uses the strictest standards to review leased sites.

The ironic timing of that claim is not lost on us: Just last week, an investigative news report stated that a severely contaminated factory in Long Island City within the districts we represent had been leased by the Department of Education and School Construction Authority, and turned into a school in 2003. The state and city are at odds over what to do about an increase in pollution beneath the school.

As representatives of the community, the city never told us that this school site was contaminated nor were students, parents or teachers informed.

Jeannie Alvarado, whose son is a freshman at the High School for Information Technology in Long Island City, is concerned for his safety.

"My rights were violated. They knew that the school was built on a toxic site, but did not tell us. Parents should be informed and then have the right to choose whether or not to send their children to these schools," she said.

When the story broke, the city released an air quality report meant to assure parents that the school is safe, but an independent environmental consultant said the testing done used irresponsibly high thresholds incapable of detecting the much lower levels of toxicity that could pose a risk to children.

All of this raises serious questions about the city's ability to ensure the safety of toxic school site occupants; the sites require perpetual monitoring and maintenance to contain potential exposure pathways. What is needed immediately is more oversight of the city's leasing process.

Bill A8838 (introduced by Nolan in the State Assembly) was drafted in response to concerns voiced by advocates including Environmental Defense, the Healthy Schools Network, NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, Sierra Club and WE ACT for Environmental Justice and community members.

By improving oversight standards and by making the city Department of Education accountable to the public from the beginning of the process rather than when it is too late, the bill will help avoid lawsuits and lessen mistrust toward DOE.

The city's proposal does not go far enough in protecting children from hidden environmental pollutants that could damage their health. We want to make it absolute that the public is involved in the review process.

A8838 sets forth a clear plan to balance the parents' right to know with the needs of the city when leasing property. The bill passed the Assembly by a vote of 150-to-0 during the legislative session.

As a check and balance on mayoral control, communities must be given notice of plans to lease toxic sites for schools and the Council must be given the opportunity to vote on the appropriateness of a site.

Leased facilities on toxic properties must go through the most stringent environmental review and it is disturbing that Walcott, as the mayor's representative, would advocate for less.

Everyone's primary goal is to avoid putting our children's health in jeopardy when leasing toxic buildings for use as schools.

Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan represents the 37th District in western Queens. Councilman Eric Gioia represents the 26th District in western Queens. Goal is to avoid putting kids' health in jeopardy