2010-12-31 / Top Stories

Feds, DOE Battle Over Light Fixture Toxins

By Howard Schwach

In January, the federal Environmental Protection Agency reportedly will begin inspecting school buildings in New York City for contamination with the toxic chemicals known as PCBs, in response to a pilot study that found that the substance is leaking from old light fixtures in many schools, including several in Rockaway.

The decision follows an exchange of letters, described by some experts as “contentious,” between the federal agency and city officials that show the two sides disagreeing over the urgency of addressing a problem that the city says could affect 750 to 850 of about 1,200 school buildings and cost about $1 billion if all the old fluorescent fixtures throughout the school system were to be replaced.

Bloomberg administration officials told the feds in a letter that the contamination does not pose an immediate health risk to students and that they prefer to finish the pilot study, which the city is conducting, before coming up with a broad plan.

A spokeswoman for the city’s Education Department, told The Wave last week that it was trying to find a solution that would not “impose a $1 billion unfunded mandate on city taxpayers.” She compared that sum with the cost of employing about 15,000 teachers.

Elevated levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were found last summer in the first three school buildings tested in the pilot study, including Beach Channel High School in Rockaway, and light fixtures were replaced at all three, according to DOE sources.

Two more schools, neither of them in Rockaway, remain to be tested next summer in that study. The DOE says that it will draw a plan of action after that study is completed. The Environmental Protection Agency, however, is not buying the city’s plan for an extended study. Saying that long-term exposure to PCBs was “cause for considerable concern,” Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator for New York, told city officials earlier this month in a letter that the federal agency itself would inspect schools for PCB leaks in light fixtures during 2011. Agency officials said that the visual inspections would start in early January and that if any light fixtures were found to be leaking PCBs, the city would be expected to remove them. They said they were not yet certain how many schools they would visit. Enck said the agency was also asking the city to agree to a schedule for the removal and proper disposal of such fixtures “in an expedited manner,” noting that other school systems have dealt with the issue at “considerably” less cost than New York City’s estimates. PCBs are highly toxic chemical compounds that were widely used in construction materials and electrical products in many buildings from the 1950s until they were phased out starting in 1978. Long-term exposure to the chemicals can cause cancer and affect the immune and reproductive systems. The pilot study involving five schools was part of an agreement the agency struck with New York City on a plan for cleanups and reduced exposure. Officials with the Education Department said that the study at first focused on cracked caulk, but that air sampling also pointed at lighting ballast, a regulating device in fluorescent lights made with oil containing PCBs.

Dennis M. Walcott, deputy mayor for education and community development, told the EPA in a letter last month that the city wanted to complete testing under the pilot program and then develop a citywide plan to manage the issue as “the most prudent course of action.” Federal officials said they were particularly concerned about the levels of contamination leaking from aging ballasts, leading to “peak levels of airborne PCBs.”

In October, the EPA came under pressure from Congress and the United Federation of Teachers, among others, to conduct thorough testing of the schools and establish firm guidelines.

One UFT official recently told a New York Times reporter, “The EPA has responded in a tremendous way. It is saying that we have found a definitive source and we can eradicate this now. Who’s the city to say no?”

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