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 reported in Gotham Gazette last month, Bronx New School, also known as PS51X, is hardly an isolated case. The city now leases more than 90 properties –many of them former industrial sites — for schools, and the regulations regarding leased properties, as opposed to those for sites the city owns, are lax, to say the last. Schools on leased sites, Checker wrote, do not have to undergo environmental review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, and the city does not have to keep the public including parents, staff and students - informed about its plans for building or monitoring those schools or remediating any hazards at the site.

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 buildings 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 DOEs 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 DOEs 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.

Dawn Philip
Staff Attorney, Environmental Justice Program
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest
John Kest
Executive Director
New York Communities for Change

Gale A. Brewer
Council Member, 6th District

Margaret Chin
Council Member, 1st District

Vincent J. Gentile
Council Member, 43rd District

Robert Jackson
Council Member, 7th District

Letitia James
Council Member, 35th District

Melissa Mark-Viverito
Council Member, 8th District

Rosie Mendez
Council Member, 2nd District

Deborah Rose
Council Member, 49th District

By on August 31, 2011, 12:44 pm
In category: Education,Environment,Gotham City | 9 Comments »

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9 Responses to “More Testing for Schools”

  1. Shawn Collins Says:
    September 1st, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Of course, the “leasing loophole” must be closed. It is an outrage that it ever existed in the first place. Its very existence says that the lives and health of children attending leased schools don’t deserve as much protection as the lives and health of children attending other schools. Also, that the parents of children attending leased schools could – – by order of state law – – be kept in the dark about dangers at their child’s school is shocking. As an environmental lawyer for more than a decade, I have seen industry treat children and families with callous disregard; but I have never seen the leaders of a school district behave this callous. Hopefully, the horrifying experience of the Bronx New School will be the catalyst for change. For further information, please visit the stories I’ve written on this terrible situation on our pollution blog: (“PLAYING CHICKEN WITH CONTAMINATION: Bronx New School Officials Show How Not To Protect Children”; “OPEN WINDOWS, SHUT MOUTHS: Bronx New School Officials Keep Parents in the Dark About Schools Chemical Dangers” and “CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE? Did School Officials Send Kids to TCE-Contaminated Bronx School for 20 Years?”)

  2. Debra Hall Says:
    September 1st, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    The NYSDEC needs to test homes and business’ near this shut building. Contamination underground can and does spread. In my neighborhood, the contamination has spread almost 2 miles long and 1/2 a mile wide. The children and teachers are now protected while at school but what about when they go home? People living near this building need to fight to get their homes tested!!!!!!!!!

    My home had vapor intrusion from TCE. The amount was very high, 50 Micrograms per cubic meter. The amount in non detectable now because a mitigation system similar if not identical to a radon system, was installed in my home. The other 65 homes that had systems installed have much lower amounts of TCE. It is not as scary as it seems because TCE can be mitigated.

    Check out to get more information.

  3. shawn collins Says:
    September 9th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Debra: you raise an excellent point about the risks these schoolchildren face, even after they leave the school. The one thing that I would add, especially regarding your experience with the TCE mitigation system, is that, while the system affords some protection, you and your family will only truly be protected when the groundwater that is causing the TCE vapor intrusion is cleaned up. I hope that there is an aggressive effort underway to clean up the contaminated groundwater undelying the homes in your community…..that’s what you deserve. In the cases I have worked on, until the groundwater is cleaned up, there remains the threat of continued vapor intrusion (because mitigation systems are by no means perfect), and also the reality that some of the value of the home will be lost (at least until the groundwater contamination is gone). I wish you well.

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