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DOE wants PCB-related lawsuit dismissed

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 4/23/2012, 3:37 p.m.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) and the Department of Education (DOE) are in a legal tug-of-war over leaky light fixtures in city schools.

Last summer, the NYLPI filed a lawsuit against the DOE and School Construction Authority (SCA) accusing the DOE of not reacting quickly enough to the news that thousands of light fixtures in New York City public schools are leaking toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), putting schoolchildren and school staff in danger and violating the law. According to the NYLPI, PCBs have been linked to cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and attention deficiencies.

The DOE and SCA filed a motion to dismiss the complaint entirely on the grounds that an affidavit ought to be filed by a parent (or someone) from each school that claims to have PCBs in its light fixtures.

Last Friday morning, both sides presented oral arguments to Magistrate Judge Cheryl L. Pollak of the Eastern Division of the United States District Court in Brooklyn.

While the DOE and SCA admit that its own testing of lighting in schools found visible leaks, they say their plan was to remove light fixtures in about 10 years.

That's not fast enough for Christina Giorgio of the NYLPI, who argued on behalf of parents and others who are outraged at the DOE and SCA's snail-like pace in fixing the lights.

"It's simply too long of a time period to be subjecting teachers and students to these toxic PCBs," Giorgio said to the AmNews. "For us, it's shocking that the city is trying to dismiss this case when they are finding new visible leaks all the time.

"The city acknowledges that there are leaks and yet they want to take 10 years to remove these lights. Particularly in light of the fact that in one school--P.S. 3R in Staten Island--the DOE found 96 percent of those lights were leaking--they found 766 leaking lights out of 795. That's an epidemic," she said.

But the city and DOE claim that they're doing all they can and say they're one of the few cities that has any system to check for PCBs.

"PCBs are a nationwide issue, and New York was the first to develop a plan for PCBs in schools," said a city attorney to the AmNews. "The city's plan effectively addresses this challenging issue while minimizing disruptions to student learning, and we will continue the ongoing work to phase out old lighting fixtures."

Giorgio explained the origin of the fight to the AmNews.

"It started a couple of years back; the New York Daily News ran some stories on PCBs in New York City schools and a concerned parent from the Bronx contacted our office to represent her in litigation that was the first lawsuit associated with this problem," said Giorgio. "Fast-forward to the summer of 2010; at that time, pilot studies were being performed at five New York City schools, and in those studies, our office learned that the PCB problem was much worse than we thought.

"The city and the DOE still use these antique T12 light fixtures that contain PCBs, and through those studies, it was clear that these fixtures were failing and leaking PCBs," she said.

And it's not just schools in poor area or schools where students aren't as "gifted." According to a March report in the Riverdale Press, PCB toxins were recently found in the Bronx High School of Science. Giorgio said that the inspectors' current method of just looking at the lights isn't good enough.

"They refuse to take the light apart, and that's the only way for them to know if a light is leaking," said Giorgio. "It is insufficient to look at it from the ground."