The city Department of Education announced Tuesday that it will significantly expedite the removal of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from city schools from the original 10-year deadline to three and a half years from now — a total of five years from the project’s 2011 start date.
The announcement came as a result of a settlement between the city and the activist organization New York Communities for Change, which sued the city last fall to move up the project after PCBs were found leaking from lighting ballasts in dozens of city schools, including IS 204 in Long Island City.
The colorless, odorless liquid is used mainly in lighting ballasts in buildings built between 1950 and 1978, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned the substance. It has been linked to cancer and diseases of the nervous system.
The DOE said it was able to reduce the schedule by focusing the program exclusively on replacing light fixtures and looking for different processes to contract bids in order to speed them up. All outstanding work will be completed by 2016, instead of 2021 as originally proposed. The department says there are still 645 schools left in the city that need remediation.
Parent groups and officials criticized the city’s deadline of 2021 when the PCB problem in a number of city schools was uncovered last September. In Staten Island, PCBs from a light ballast leaked onto one student during the first week of the school year. The discovery of the chemical at IS 204 prompted a press conference featuring parents, teachers and members of New York Communities for Change, who announced the lawsuit against the city that day. The New York Times reported the EPA has identified 48 cases of PCBs leaking from light ballasts in city schools this year.
“Since the beginning of this proposed plan, I have always said that we would reassess the timeline once we had a better understanding of the work,” said Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.“We will continue to listen to parents’ concerns and do as much as we can to build the best possible school environment for our students.We will also continue to dedicate enormous resources to this challenging project.By the end of this summer, we expect to have replaced light fixtures inover200 schools and buildings.”
Councilman James Gennaro (D-Fresh Meadows), chairman of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, also applauded the agreement.
“This expedited timeline for the removal of harmful PCBs from lighting fixtures in hundreds of school buildings is a common-sense agreement that puts this city’s schoolchildren first,” he said.
Dmytro Fedkowskyj, the Queens representative on the Panel for Educational Policy, the policy-making arm of the DOE, said it is unfortunate a lawsuit was needed to force the city’s hand.
“I’m glad this is being addressed sooner than later because dormant conditions are accidents waiting to happen,” he said. “It’s too bad it had to come to a lawsuit to correct an existing and potentially dangerous condition.”