More Testing for Schools
August 31st, 2011
In the wake of the closing of a Bronx schools contaminated with a toxic chemical, two advocacy groups and eight members of the City Council have written to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott demanding immediate testing of city school on leased property and a public disclosure of he results.
Earlier this summer, the Department of Education shut Bronx New School, which had operated in a leased former industrial site in Bedford Park. Walcott has admitted the department knew of the contamination since January but did not tell parents until eight months later. The school had apparently never been tested before – although students attended classes there for two decades.
While other cases may not be quite that egregious, as Melissa Checker
In the letter, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, New York Communities for Change and the council members seek to address some of these issues, focusing on 31 schools whose leases are up for renewal. The city does inspect school when their leases come up for renewal, although a schools spokesperson told Checker only that the inspections would take plan within eight weeks – not necessarily before the school year begins.
More and the letter after the jump.
The letter demands that the first phase of testing of the sites of the 31 schools and their indoor air quality be completed by the time school starts on Sept. 8 and that the results of that testing be made public.
In addition, the groups and officials want the department to disclose the results of its testing on 65 schools whose sites have been renewed since 2002.
“Recent events bring into sharp focus the need for stronger environmental review and increased transparency at all currently leased sites,” the letter said, adding “Waiting for lease renewals to trigger even basic environmental investigation of these sites, in some instances have left children and school employees vulnerable to potential toxic chemical exposure for decades.”
Here’s the full letter:
Dear Chancellor Walcott:
We write to express our serious concerns regarding the environmental conditions of leased school sites in New York City. Recent events at PS 51X make clear that there must be a more transparent and comprehensive environmental review process for all leased school sites.
As you know, in early August, the Department of Education (DOE) informed parents and school staff that PS 51X would be closing due to unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent and a human carcinogen. Subsequently, we learned that the DOE performed initial sampling at PS 51X in January and found levels of TCE ten times above the New York City Department of Health (DOH) guidelines. Testing in March and April continued to show consistently high levels of TCE. Incredibly, the DOE waited over seven months before notifying appropriate parties and school employees of the test results.
We have also learned that, even though PS51X was sited on severely contaminated property, the DOE conducted no environmental reviews or testing on it for the first twenty years that PS 51X operated as a school. Allowing children and school staff to occupy the building under these conditions demonstrates a shocking disregard for the health of the building’s occupants, particularly in light of the fact that TCE exposure is linked to a range of serious health risks that only increase with length of exposure.
Although egregious, the actions and omissions that occurred at PS 51X are consistent with DOE practice at leased school sites. These recent events bring into sharp focus the need for stronger environmental review and increased transparency at all currently leased sites. The DOE’s practice of performing environmental audits of leased school sites only when the leases come up
for renewal is seriously deficient. Like PS 51X, many of the current school leases are long-term leases entered into many years ago with minimal environmental review. Waiting for lease renewals to trigger even basic environmental investigation of these sites, in some instances have left children and school employees vulnerable to potential toxic chemical exposure for decades.
This policy also contradicts the DOE’s claims that all leased sites undergo thorough environmental review. Unfortunately, the DOE continues to fight measures to increase oversight and accountability of leased school sites and as a result, parents and school staff are routinely kept in the dark about environmental conditions that pose serious health risks in both the short and long-term.
In light of the foregoing, we demand that the DOE undertake the following actions:
1. Conduct immediate indoor air quality testing of all 31 existing leased school sites that have not undergone any environmental review to date. Testing should be conducted according to the New York State Department of Health (DOH) Vapor Intrusion Guidance document and completed prior to the first day of classes on September 8th. If any sampling results exceed the screening levels outlined in Matrix 1 of the DOH guidelines, the DOE must notify all appropriate parties including parents and teachers to determine further action. Because vapor intrusion varies significantly over time, follow- up testing should be conducted during the heating season, as recommended in the NYS DOH Guidance document.
2. Conduct and complete Phase I environmental site assessments at the 31 leased school sites prior to the first day of classes. If any Phase I review indicates the need for a Phase II review, this must be initiated immediately and completed as soon as is practicable. In determining further action based on the results of the Phase I and Phase II reviews, all appropriate parties must be notified including parents and school employees.
3. Publicly disclose all preliminary indoor air quality results and any documents relating to the Phase I environmental site assessments at each of the 31 school sites prior to the first day of classes. These documents must be disclosed in an easily accessible format such as an online repository.
4. Publicly disclose all documents relating to the environmental review, investigation, and remediation of the 65 school leases that have been renewed since 2002 prior to the first day of classes. To be clear, while we are entitled to this information through a FOIL request, the significant delay associated with such requests combined with the imminent start of the school year require immediate disclosure.
Protecting the health of our children requires that the DOE act with far greater urgency and vigilance in ensuring the environmental health and safety of our schools. Parents have a right to know their children are attending safe, healthy learning environments.
Staff Attorney, Environmental Justice Program
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
New York Communities for Change
Gale A. Brewer
Council Member, 6th District
Council Member, 1st District
Vincent J. Gentile
Council Member, 43rd District
Council Member, 7th District
Council Member, 35th District
Council Member, 8th District
Council Member, 2nd District
Council Member, 49th District
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