Rosenthal Condemns NYC DOE Stalling Tactics in PCB Cleanup; Applauds US EPA Intervention in Contaminated Schools

New York, NY – New York State Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF, Manhattan) today spoke out in support of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after it criticized the New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) repeated efforts to downplay and deny the severity of the PCB contamination in City schools constructed between 1950 - 1978. In a strongly worded letter from EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck to Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, Ms. Enck charged the City with violating federal law by allowing continued presence of PCB-laden light ballasts in school buildings. The Deputy Mayor’s office has discounted the EPA’s findings and is not cooperating with EPA efforts to rid schools of PCB contamination.

“I’m shocked and appalled that the City thinks it knows more about PCBs than the nation’s top environmental law enforcement agency,” said Assemblymember Rosenthal. “Since PCBs were first discovered in 2008 at P.S. 199, an elementary school in my district, I’ve worked to raise awareness of the incredibly harmful health effects of long-term exposure to these banned human carcinogens. I will continue to fight the DOE's attempt to downplay the severity and scope of the contamination.”

In seeming contradiction to its action thus far, the DOE has stated it is “working with the Obama administration to find solutions” only days after the Obama U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a scathing reprimand to the City and suggested that it was in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act if it did not immediately implement a citywide light fixture replacement process. The EPA has now revealed that it has begun its own inspections of light ballasts.

“The EPA’s reprimand for the City’s likely violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act and failure to take advantage of federal programs to expedite cleanup is a key milestone in moving this issue forward,” said Assemblymember Rosenthal. “I have prepared legislation to require that the DOE replace all contaminated light fixtures in affected schools and am optimistic that the EPA’s intervention gives this new urgency. The City's commitment to delaying this cleanup is unnerving, but the federal government has made it clear that we need to take action now."

Assemblymember Rosenthal and Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D, NY-8) have worked hand in hand to compel the city to take steps necessary to rid schools of PCBs.

“As we have long declared, the testing and remediation of PCBs in our schools requires a strong, centralized and immediate response from the government,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler. “The EPA has responded firmly to the City’s failure to act quickly citywide and resolutely dismissed many of the City’s reasons for delaying action. It is obvious that the presence of PCBs in our schools poses genuine health risks for New Yorkers. Moreover, the need to test the schools and abate harmful toxins in potentially hundreds of facilities is something we must not postpone due to funding or bureaucratic delays. There is positively no excuse for taking chances with the well-being of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, and I reiterate my call on the City to take the PCB threat more seriously.”

In August, three of the five schools that were selected for testing as part of an EPA-DOE pilot program returned results in excess of EPA guidelines. After the light fixtures were replaced in the three schools, PCB levels decreased to below guidance levels in each school except P.S. 199 – identifying the fixtures as a clear source of contamination. The EPA has specifically asked the City to replace older fluorescent lighting fixtures in all City school buildings built between 1950 - 1978. Last week, Deputy Mayor for Education, Dennis Walcott abruptly postponed a long scheduled meeting on this issue that was to include EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, Assemblymember Rosenthal and Congressman Nadler.

In April 2008, it was revealed that the School Construction Authority (SCA) subcontractors performing the upgrade at P.S. 199 and other schools neglected safety protocols and caused unacceptable levels of PCBs in air and wipe samples, possibly jeopardizing students’ health. This led to the current consent agreement between the EPA and DOE after the threat of lawsuit by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and other environmental groups. PCBs have been observed to cause cardiovascular, endocrine, immune and cognitive damage in addition to other complications. In children, whose developing systems are exposed to PCBs in schools throughout the school year, exposure has been additionally linked with attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased aggression and many other symptoms that constitute a serious impediment to cognitive development and learning.

Assemblymember Rosenthal (D/WF) represents the Upper West Side and parts of Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan.