Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, Elected Officials, Parents & Advocates Slam DOE for Failure to Notify Parents of Toxic PCB Leak for Three Months; Demand Immediate Action on PCBS in P.S. 87 and All NYC Schools

DOE apologies are too little, too late

New York, NY – New York State Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal (D/WF-Manhattan) was joined by a coalition of elected officials, advocates and concerned parents and community members at P.S. 87 on the Upper West Side today to demand answers from the New York City Department of Education (DOE) regarding its failure to notify parents of a toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) leak for nearly three months, despite being required by law to do so within seven days.

After a lighting ballast began to smoke and emit a foul, burning odor in room 310 in P.S. 87 on December 7, 2012, two clear indications that the lighting ballast was failing, the students were evacuated and the room was aired out over the weekend. The fixture was not removed at that time. Three weeks later, on December 28, 2012, a DOE employee conducting a visual inspection of that same ballast, noticed evidence of a PCB leak within the lighting fixture. Only then was the affected lighting ballast, along with several others in the classroom, removed and replaced.

“Apologies just don’t cut it anymore,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal. “Time and time again, the DOE has failed students and parents when it comes to PCBs. To date, the DOE’s response has been nothing less than feckless dithering, unnecessarily confusing for school administrators and parents and willfully blind to the real dangers posed by PCBs, which has resulted in prolonged exposure for our children. Timelines and false promises only go so far; now, we need to see immediate action from the DOE. It is clear that the city will not come clean about the PCBs in schools unless forced to do so. That's why the bill I am sponsoring in the Assembly must be passed immediately.”

Bill A.988-A/S .3774 is sponsored by Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) in the New York State Senate, who made the decision to carry the bill after PCB lighting ballasts ruptured and caught fire in P.S. 50 in his district six weeks ago. The bill will require the City to remove and replace all PCB lighting ballasts within two years and conduct post-remediation air testing.

The DOE is required by New York City Local Law 68 of 2011 to report an active PCB leak to the school administration and parents within seven days of its discovery. But it only notified parents two days ago, after an industrious parent discovered that the school had been moved to an expedited PCB remediation list for schools where an active PCB leak had been confirmed and contacted Assemblymember Rosenthal, who promptly contacted the DOE.

“The P.S. 87 school community wants answers, we all want answers,” declared Assemblymember Rosenthal. “More than answers, we want action, here at P.S. 87 and at every other school across the City contaminated by PCBs. The time for talk has passed. Our kids should be in schools to learn about their ABCs, not their PCBs.”

P.S. 87 is among more than 700 school buildings in New York City built between 1950 and 1979 likely to contain PCB-contaminated lighting ballasts. PCBs were first discovered in a public school in Assemblymember Rosenthal’s district, P.S. 199 in 2007, during a routine window replacement when caulking around the windows was tested for toxins. Under threat of lawsuit and after Assemblymember Rosenthal introduced her legislation, the DOE announced a ten-year timeline in which it would remove and replace PCB-contaminated lighting ballasts in more than 700 school buildings. Though health experts, including the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agree that ten years is too long to expose students and school staff, the DOE has taken a ‘head in the sand’ approach to PCBs. DOE’s mishandling of this situation demonstrates that the process cannot continue for 10 years; the risk is just too great.

According to Dr. Jacqueline Moline, occupational medicine specialist and Vice President, Population Health, North Shore LIJ Health System, “PCBs are dangerous and have no place in the schools. We owe it to our children, school staff and the community to provide a safe learning environment, free from toxins and hazards, such as the PCB-laden lights.”

The school community is reeling on the heels of this unexpected discovery. Though DOE has promised publicly that schools on the expedited remediation list will have their ballasts removed and replaced within one year, P.S. 87 is not slated for this process until sometime during fiscal year 2014.

“We are deeply, deeply concerned for the health and safety of our children, teachers and staff. We insist that our classrooms are remediated this summer and that the DOE allow immediate air quality testing so that we can make sure our school is safe. We call on the DOE and the City of New York to do better by our children. They deserve a safe place to learn, and we, as parents, deserve answers," said P.S. 87 Parents Association co-presidents Claire Abenante, Ann Binstock and Katie Miller.

In addition to parents, an array of elected officials representing P.S. 87 has expressed outrage at the lapse.

“The ongoing experience of the P.S. 87 community is yet another example of why the City’s response to PCBs in our schools has been unsatisfactory,” said Congressman Jerry Nadler. “The City’s response to date has been piecemeal and rife with delays and false assurances of speedy remediation, all of which has caused unnecessary confusion for parents and prolonged exposure for our children. The City’s failure to promptly notify P.S. 87 parents – as they were required to do by law – only makes matters worse. The City must end the delays and act now to remediate all affected schools as quickly as possible.”

“Three weeks is too long to wait for toxic chemicals to be removed from a classroom -- period," said Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer. “Parents must never be left in the dark about issues that affect their children's wellbeing. They have the right to know their children aren’t risking sickness by sitting down in their classroom, and our teachers are equally entitled to a safe, clean workplace.”

New York State Senator Jose M. Serrano (D/WF-Manhattan), a co-sponsor of Assemblymember Rosenthal’s PCB remediation bill, said, “We must ensure that our schools not only pass the litmus test for adequate curriculum, but for building safety as well. The DOE must do more to immediately rectify health hazards and make certain parents are promptly notified of any toxic contamination that may exist. I'd like to thank Assemblymember Rosenthal for proposing legislation that will provide needed oversight of the DOE and help prevent any future re-occurrences of PCB leaks in our public school system."