New York City

In victory for children, city agrees to speed up removal of PCBs from schools

Out by end of 2016

May 22, 2013 By Mary Frost Brooklyn Daily Eagle
PCB press conference 2 - 05 22 2013.jpg
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After a two year legal battle, the Bloomberg administration agreed to cut in half its ten-year timeline to remove light fixtures containing toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl ) from more than 750 New York City public schools, many in Brooklyn.

Announced Monday, the settlement requires the city to remove all PCB light fixtures by the end of 2016, five years earlier that its original plan.

“This settlement is a real victory for New York City parents, students and schools staff as in three and a half years, our public schools will finally be free of these toxic PCB light fixtures,” said Christina Giorgio, attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), which brought the litigation with White & Case.

NYLPI has been spearheading the legal battle for the advocacy group New York Communities for Change, representing city parents frantic about their children’s long-term exposure to the banned chemical.

 “This case has always been about getting children and staff out of harm’s way. The new aggressive timeline will ensure that this happens as quickly and safely as possible,” Giorgio said.

Representatives, members of the City Council and the Environmental Protection Agency have also been pressuring the city to remove the fixtures.  

“I believe that we are truly seeing justice done in this settlement,” said Congressman Jerrold Nadler. “The city’s ten year timeframe placed hundreds of vulnerable schoolchildren and staff at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals, and was–in a word–unacceptable.”

“I am very pleased to learn that the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the City of New York have reached an agreement committing to remediate each and every school which is plagued with dangerous PCBs by 2016.” said Council Member Stephen Levin (Brooklyn Heights, Greenpoint; parts of Williamsburg). “This is a victory for every parent, child and school staff member in the New York City school system.”

The Bloomberg administration has been aggressively fighting parents’ demands to speed up the removal, and had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.  In March, however, a federal judge ruled against the city’s motion, criticizing the city’s “foot-dragging.”  

Lighting ballasts and caulking installed between 1950 and 1978 contain PCBs, which have been linked to cancer, respiratory, endocrine, reproductive and immune disorders. The US banned PCB production in 1979. Workers removing leaking fixtures are advised to wear protective clothing, including chemically-resistant gloves, goggles, boots, and disposable overalls.

The city’s Department of Health has tried to minimize the dangers posed by the chemical in the past, claiming, “there is no immediate health concern” and “health effects from long term exposure to the air in school buildings are unlikely to occur at the PCB levels seen in the NYC schools.”

“These lights are leaking en masse,” Christina Giorgio, attorney for NYLPI told the Brooklyn Eagle last April, calling a letter to parents from the DOE “misleading” and making “every effort to downplay the risks to staff and children.”

On Monday the city’s Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo said in a statement, “Though this issue has evoked strong sentiments from all involved and was the subject of a major litigation, attorneys from both sides sat down together and, with the assistance of the magistrate judge, engaged in very detailed, productive discussions to find the right solution. This outcome demonstrates the City’s commitment to a smart and beneficial outcome.”

Over the last several years, the aging fixtures have proved increasingly prone to leaks. Last June, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that parents at two Carroll Gardens schools asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to intervene after their letters, petitions and documentation of the leaks were ignored by DOE officials.

This paper published photos of the fixtures, which clearly showed them leaking a black substance. DOE subsequently admitted the lights were leaking PCBs and had the fixtures removed.

On April 23, Public Advocate and Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio said that PCB-containing lighting fixtures were removed from the politically-connected Success Academy Charter School in Cobble Hill – but not from the three regular public schools that share the same building. The city said it planned to remove the lighting fixtures this summer.

In March, DOE apologized to parents at an Upper West Side elementary school for failing to inform them that a fixture leaked the toxic chemical in a classroom, according to the New York Times.   

Incidents with light fixtures sent nine kids and two adults to the hospital on May 7 at P.S./I.S. 123 in Harlem, InsideSchools reports.

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