Education officials told City Council members on Tuesday that the School Construction Authority would remove toxic chemicals known as PCBs from 85 schools by the end of this summer. But, with over 700 school buildings contaminated with the toxic chemicals, Council members said the remediation was not moving fast enough.
“I know that things move when the mayor says it has to move. And on behalf of all the people in New York City and all the legislators, this 85 is not an acceptable number,” said Council member Robert Jackson, chairman of the education committee.
The exchange over PCB cleanup, which involves replacing old and leaking light fixtures, dominated the hearing on the schools' proposed capital budget.
The city has been removing and replacing all the lighting fixtures in school buildings constructed before the 1979 ban on PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are used in the devices that regulate electric current for fluorescent lights. Long-term exposure can lead to cancer and affect immune and reproductive systems.
When council members asked if more money could make things move faster, SCA president Lorraine Grillo said the problem was about more than funding.
“This is a process that takes weeks. We are in that process. And as we roll out these projects we file them with the buildings department, we have these documents we put out to bid, the process continues,” said Grillo.
In addition, department officials said the presence of asbestos in the fixtures meant schools had to be closed during removals, severely limiting the time when the work can take place.
The issue has cropped up in schools across the city, particularly in the last two years. Last winter the City Council approved a measure that required the D.O.E. to give parents and school staff regular updates on the status of PCB light fixtures and the city’s actions to replace them.
At the end of last school year, parents at P.S. 146 Brooklyn New School in Carroll Gardens called on the D.O.E. to move faster to remove toxic PCBs in the schools. They were not happy with the D.O.E.'s response.
“They say that it poses no immediate health risk,” said parent Alexis Quy. “O.K. So, our children aren’t going to come into the school and start coughing and wheezing. However, what will happen in 10 years?”
Reporting contributed by Daisy Rosario.