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P.S. 29 Parents Grill Officials Over Construction

Friday, April 27, 2012 - 04:33 PM

For more than three hours in a packed auditorium at Public School 29 John M. Harrigan in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, on Thursday night, parents took representatives from the School Construction Authority to task for what they deemed “unacceptable behavior” involving a $7 million maintenance and upkeep project that began at the school at the end of February.

Chief among the many complaints were what parents said was a breach of Department of Environmental Protection protocol on project notification and a failure to address their safety concerns about asbestos abatement and dust.

Lorraine Grillo, the president of the School Construction Authority, apologized for the lack of dialogue and promised greater transparency.

“Our normal routine was not enough for you,” she said, “so I apologize for that. I promise you will walk away tonight knowing everything about this project.”

But Ms. Grillo stated unequivocally that the asbestos abatement would begin as scheduled, thereby denying parents the one concession they wanted most: putting off until the summer parts of the project that they consider hazardous to their children’s health.

At the front of the room, along with Ms. Grillo and her staff, were representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection and the Taylor Environmental Group, a third-party monitor hired by the School Construction Authority to oversee the work.

Also in attendance were representatives from the offices of Borough President Marty Markowitz, State Senator Daniel L. Squadron, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Councilmember Brad Lander.

Carl Colombo, the construction authority’s chief project officer, walked parents through a detailed schedule of the proposed 18-month capital improvement project.

Mr. Colombo said that as requested by parents and staff, the majority of raking -- a process that raises significant amounts of dust -- would be done in July when school is out of session. A copy of the schedule, he said, would be shared with members of the parent construction committee.

Alexander Lempert, the construction authority’s director for industrial and environmental hygiene, tried to reassure parents that their worries about asbestos exposure were unfounded.

“I got married to asbestos 28 years ago,” Mr. Lempert said, and got some laughter from the tense crowd. The asbestos found in the building was non-friable, he said, which meant that it could not be broken down easily and posed no risk of airborne exposure.

He pointed to safety measures that his team was taking -- including sealing the space between windows and taking samples of air inside the classroom -- which he said were “above and beyond” what was required by the Department of Environmental Protection.

IMG_1130Hiten Samtani for SchoolBook Bob Coen with other parents at the P.S. 29 PTA meeting on asbestos abatement Thursday.

Indeed, the more pressing worry would appear to be dust. Children ingest more food and more air than adults, said Dr. Alexis Demopoulos, a parent at the school and a neuro-oncologist at Mount Sinai Hospital.

Ms. Grillo said there would be additional cleanup on the site and a full-time member of the project management staff inspecting dust levels, but parents countered by reminding her that they had to fight for those concessions.

Some experts believe that even with stringent safety measures in place, the risk to children’s health is substantial. Buildings need to breathe for extended periods of time before they can be reoccupied after any work involving dust, said Dr. John Santilli, an allergist and immunologist in Bridgeport, Conn., who over the last decade has been active in dealing with issues of air quality in schools.

“No matter how closely they follow existing protocol, even with positive and negative air machines in place, it is ludicrous, actually it's unconscionable, to do this kind of work while people, let alone children, are in the school or soon to return to the buildings,” Dr. Santilli said. This precaution, he said, is not limited to asbestos, but also to dust, mold, lead and silica.

But it was fear about asbestos exposure that served as the catalyst for parents' mobilization. On Monday morning, they gathered at the school with their children to try to delay the asbestos removal phase. As it turns out, the project was postponed because of concerns about wetness related to the weekend rains.

Parents remain engaged, said Maura Sheehy, the co-president of the school’s PTA. PS29 Construction, a Web site that sprung up after the project was announced, is meticulously updated with all developments.

On Wednesday, Bob Coen, a parent, filed a request under the Freedom of Information Law for documents pertaining to the abatement, including the Department of Environmental Protection permit (ACP 7 form). Mr. Coen was sent a copy of the documents on Thursday, he said.

At the Thursday meeting, vigilant parents were videotaping and transcribing every word. They would often jump in to contest a claim made by construction authority officials. The biggest point of dispute was over how parents had been notified about the abatement.

According to Title 15 of Department of Environmental Protection regulations, notices of asbestos abatement must be posted in conspicuous places around the school, seven days before work is to begin. Ms. Grillo insisted the construction authority had been faithful to all other elements of Title 15 -- except for the notification requirement, for which the construction authority had “an agreement” with the Department of Environmental Protection, she said.

An e-mail exchange earlier in the week between Kathleen Grimm, a deputy chancellor at the Department of Education, and Simmi Malhotra-Degnemark, a parent, seems to support Ms. Grillo’s statement.

“We operate under a different protocol, which is DEP approved,” the e-mail said. “We hold a UFT protocol meeting with school staff to discuss the project and the abatement. We distribute ‘Dear Neighbor’ letters to the surrounding community. And importantly, we meet with the PTA. We put up notices in the abatement areas when we start work.”

But no one made parents aware of this alternative arrangement, and consequently some said they were having difficulty trusting the School Construction Authority.

David Weiner, a parent, chastised the construction authority for violating the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) guidelines for capital improvement projects, to which Ms. Grillo replied that it was under no obligation to do so.

Mr. Weiner said that this was reason enough for all work on the project to halt.

In fact, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, maintenance or repair work that involves no substantial changes in an existing structure can be undertaken without a SEQR review.

Parents took some solace in the fact that a third-party hygienist appointed by Chris Proctor, the director of safety and health for the United Federation of Teachers, would be on hand to oversee the project. The hygienist, Edward Olmsted, is pre-certified by the School Construction Authority, a condition that Ms. Grillo said had to be met.

Since the asbestos abatement is set to proceed, some parents reiterated what they said at a rally on Monday about keeping their children out of school.

Jessica Pollard, who has a daughter in kindergarten, said that she would keep her child at home, but added that it would be more difficult for parents with older children to do so.

“Kindergarten’s not such a big deal,” she said.

Melanie Woods, the principal, said she would help parents figure out their options if they chose to keep their children out, but added that she was upset about the turn of events. “It’s heartbreaking for me to think I’m going to be losing some of my children,” she said.

Some parents have organized another rally to protest against the work at 5:30 p.m. Friday. But some of the parents were seeing the situation slightly differently from just a few days ago.

Rhonda Keyser, who has a daughter in the second grade and sits on the newly renamed Health and Safety Committee, said she came to the meeting suspecting that the School Construction Authority was obfuscating about the project. Now, she said, she believes the officials were just poor communicators.

“If we’re afraid of a ghost or a monster we don’t just want you to say ‘there’s no ghost,’" she said in an interview after the meeting. "We want you to say ‘there’s no ghost in the closet, the windows are locked, we’ve looked under the bed, we’ve looked everywhere.’ We don’t need appeasement, we need information.”

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