Beth Fertig is WNYC’s Contributing Editor for Education. She previously covered politics, which included City Hall during the Giuliani administration, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton. She also covered transportation and infrastructure.
Removing PCBs From Schools Now Complicated By Asbestos, Says Ed Dept
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
The city's Department of Education said the hundreds of thousands of lighting fixtures it plans to replace in the city's schools because they contain PCBs are also contaminated with asbestos.
Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm told a City Council committee hearing that inspectors found asbestos that was used to insulate the problematic fixtures while examining them for signs of leaking PCBs.
"Asbestos comes with its own special rules and containment procedures," said Grimm of the cancer-causing material.
She said it can only be removed on weekends and holidays, not evenings "because we have to actually contain the area, and make sure that we're removing it properly and disposing of it properly."
That makes it very hard to work quickly.
Grimm said this is one reason why it will take the city up to 10 years to remove and replace all of the lighting fixtures with PCBs from the public schools. The Department of Education said almost 800 schools have contaminated lighting fixtures.
PCBs are linked to cancer, developmental disabilities and other health problems and were widely used until the late 1970s. Tests conducted in the city last summer found they can leak into the air of school buildings as they age at levels above the federal standard.
While noting that PCB's in the air don't cause an immediate risk to children, the Environmental Protection Agency has advised the city to do all it can to get rid of them. It conducted seven targeted inspections in school buildings earlier this year, which found high concentrations of PCBs in lighting ballasts.
It stopped the inspections when the city came up with a 10-year plan to remove all of the effected lighting fixtures. Its regional office calls that a "step in the right direction" but insists the fixtures can be removed from all 772 schools in no more than five years.
City Council members are urging the Department of Education to follow or even beat the EPA's more aggressive timetable.
"I believe, based on their leadership and advice, that five years is a time frame in which we can remove these lighting fixtures," said Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
She urged the DOE to remove PCBs from schools in an "orderly and an effective matter" that protects public health.
The city has estimated its 10-year plan will cost $850 million. Quinn suggested that contractors might be able to do the job for less money as they make the city's lighting and heating fixtures more energy efficient.
Grimm told council members that companies will be invited to submit their bids after a Request for Proposals is issued in June. But she repeated that the EPA is "underestimating the complexity of performing work of this type in school buildings."
So far, she said, school custodians have been inspecting lighting fixtures for brown stains and other signs of leakage. She said ballast leaks have been observed in lighting fixtures in 43 school buildings.
All of those with signs of current or past leakage were "replaced immediately," Grimm said, while the remainder of light fixtures in those buildings will be replaced within a year of inspection.
And as the city goes about replacing all of the potentially effected fixtures, it will concentrate first on elementary buildings constructed between 1950 and 1966 because the EPA found the "magnetic" ballasts in those buildings were more likely to leak than the "electronic" ones used later.
Meanwhile, the group New York Communities for Change filed notice that it intends to sue under the federal toxic substances control act if the city doesn't update its PCB removal plans.
The group also wants teachers and other union members to be more involved in the process, said Miranda Massie of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who's representing the group.