Advocacy Groups Push for Faster PCB Clean-Up

Legislators, parents and advocacy groups gathered on the steps of City Hall Friday to urge the city to replace PCB-leaking light fixtures from city schools within two years, instead of the 10-year time frame outlined by the Department of Education.

Forty-one City Council members signed a letter addressed to Judith Enck, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, urging the EPA to adopt a strict, two-year plan that would get rid of the old ballasts leaking PCBs.

Enck told WNYC she agreed the city should move faster.

"Our testing has revealed that there are leaking ballasts in the schools, and we need a more expeditious schedule for the lighting," she said.

Almost 800 city schools are thought to have lighting fixtures with PCBs, which were commonly used in the ballasts that control their currents. PCBs were banned in the late 1970s and are linked to various health problems including cancer, rashes and developmental disabilities.

Since January, the Environmental Protection Agency has tested seven public school buildings in the city and found ballasts leaking concentrations of PCBs that exceeded federal regulatory limits. The city also tested one school in Staten Island after a teacher complained of a leak, and it found PCBs in ballasts that also exceeded the regulatory limit. The EPA stopped checking for leaks in mid-February after receiving a plan from the city to replace the lighting fixtures in schools within 10 years.

But many elected officials and parents say that's too long.

"We cannot afford to have our children breathing in all these toxins everyday," said Council member Margaret Chin of Lower Manhattan. "They can fix this problem immediately and we demand it."

Council Member Vincent Ignizio from Staten Island said he wondered how the mayor, who has passed several health initiatives, could let children sit in potentially contaminated classrooms.

"That doesn't make sense," he said. "It is hypocritical at worst and just ignorant at best."

The EPA maintains that the PCBs don’t pose an immediate health hazard. In studies of three city schools last summer, air samples had higher than recommended levels of the chemicals because of leaking ballasts but the agency said they weren’t so high as to be threatening. Still, it recommends that all schools around the country remove or retrofit older lighting fixtures.

The city's Department of Education has already begun to replace the light fixtures in the buildings where leaks were observed, according to a department spokeswoman. In addition, it is working on the city-wide plan to remove the ballasts.

Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator, said her agency is still studying that 10-year plan. It would do more than just replace older lighting fixtures because it also deals with energy audits and retrofitting school buildings' heating and lighting systems for the long term.

But while the EPA encourages these efforts, Enck said replacing the lighting ballasts should be a priority.

Queens parent Jean-Andre Sassine Queens agreed the process should move fasters. He said he was shocked to learn that his kids' school contained PCB levels significantly higher than what is federally allowed. Calling the leaky ballasts "our generation's lead paint," he said the Department of Education should remove the fixtures.

"Protect the air that the children breathe, or at least send your kids to my kids' school, and then I’ll feel better about you [DOE] not doing anything about it," he said.