2011-07-22 / Top Stories

Department Of Education Sued On Leaking Toxic Light Fixtures

By Howard Schwach

A federal lawsuit instituted by a parent advocacy group says that the city is violating federal law by allowing lights leaking a cancer-causing agent to remain in public schools.

Parents of students are suing the city to speed up its proposed 10-year time frame for removing the possibly contaminated light fixtures.

The schools in which the toxic fixtures have been found include IS 53 in Far Rockaway, PS 42 in Arverne and Beach Channel High School.

Other Rockaway schools, including many built prior to 1979 have not yet been tested, but are suspected of having the toxic fixtures, experts say.

The parents, from New York Communities for Change accuse city schools of violating of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act by having outdated “T12” lighting ballasts, which may leak PCBs, according to the suit filed Wednesday.

“We became convinced that the only way to get a reasonable time frame for removing these toxic antiquated lights is through litigation,” Miranda Massie, legal director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is handling the suit told the Daily News. “We feel that we’ve tried every thing else, and the city continues to insist in an unacceptable 10-year time frame.”

In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency banned PCBs, which were used in electrical resistors to control lights and have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, birth defects and learning difficulties.

In spot checks earlier this year, the EPA found elevated PCB levels in every city school tested, according to the lawsuit.

The Department of Education plans to replace “T12” lights from several hundred schools over the next 10 years as part of a $708 million energy efficiency project.

But some council members and the EPA have criticized that time line as too long.

DOE spokeswoman Natalie Ravitz disagreed.

“Our plan to replace light fixtures in 754 school buildings is unprecedented compared to other cities, and PCBs are a nationwide issue,” she said.

“While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe this is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run.”

Lawyers from the DOE’s Environmental Law Division said they hadn’t been served with legal papers as of Wednesday evening, according to Kate O’Brien Ahlers, spokeswoman for the city law department.

“We’re awaiting service and will review them carefully,” O’Brien Ahlers said.

Last month, the City Council approved spending $30 million over the next three years to accelerate the project.

The suit seeks an injunction to compel the city to replace the lighting ballasts immediately, to test schools for PCB contamination once the ballasts are removed, and unspecified damages.

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