It took an incident involving actual injuries to get the Bloomberg administration on the case of PCBs.
Every parent’s worst fear took place at P.S./I.S. 123 in Harlem last week. According to authorities, 11 people–two adults and nine children–were injured and two schools evacuated after a fluorescent light bulb exploded in the building, which is shared with a Success Academy charter school, potentially releasing a small cloud of toxic chemicals.
The Department of Education will investigate whether the fixture contained PCBs. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are known to cause cancer and damage neurological and cognitive development in children. They were banned by Congress in 1979.
In late March, federal Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. rejected the city’s efforts to dismiss a 2011 lawsuit brought by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and White & Case, working on a pro bono basis, on behalf of New York Communities for Change (NYCC). The lawsuit’s goal involved expediting the city’s 10-year timeline for removing PCB-contaminated light fixtures that are still used in over 650 New York City public school buildings.
However, last Wednesday, city officials released a statement saying the city could complete the job before “the previously announced timetable of 2021.” The city couldn’t elaborate because the lawsuit is still in progress.
The recent developments provoked a statement from Zakiyah Ansari, a public school parent leader and spokeswoman for New Yorkers for Great Public Schools.
“How many more light fixtures have to burst in our schools before the DOE takes action?” asked Ansari. “The DOE needs to stop endangering students and teachers with toxic PCBs and must come clean about the double standard for Eva Moskowitz. We need an immediate investigation into the DOE’s separate and unequal health standards. They should not be allowed to look the other way while Eva Moskowitz removes PCBs from her charter schools without even getting a permit for environmental remediation.”
Success Academy, which has remained controversial (and well-funded) since its inception, found itself in another tight situation after being called out for violating DOE regulations. Before moving into another location at 284 Baltic St. in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn (sharing space with the Brooklyn School for Global Studies, the School for International Studies and P.S. 368K), the Moskowitz-run charter school fixed and replaced light fixtures in the school’s hallways without asking for the DOE’s approval.
In March, a light in an administrative office at P.S. 368 emitted white smoke and caused concern about a leak due to the building being on the list of city schools containing PCBs.
The following month, Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio joined parents, activists and the United Federation of Teachers to demand an investigation into Success Academy’s Cobble Hill location and to find out how the school was able to get rid of their PCB-contaminated light fixtures while the other schools in their building couldn’t. De Blasio also accused the charter school of receiving special treatment from the DOE.
“This is worse than unfair,” said de Blasio. “Time and time again, we’ve seen a ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ with resources lavished on Success Academy while traditional public schools in the same building lacked the most basic necessities. In the case of Cobble Hill, we could have inequities that affect the very health and safety of children.”
Last week, Council Education Chair Robert Jackson joined the fray by filing a petition with the State Education Department to investigate the Success Academy’s unauthorized removal of light fixtures and the DOE’s failure to remove them from other schools. Joined by New York City Comptroller and current mayoral candidate John Liu, Executive Director of West Harlem Environmental Action Peggy Shepard and public school parents, Jackson spoke on the need to address dangerous materials in city children’s midst.
“As I have stated before, the DOE’s ‘comprehensive’ 10-year plan to improve environmentally quality of our schools is absolutely absurd and unacceptable,” said Jackson. “These incidents demonstrate that these problems must be fixed now. The State Department needs to investigate and verify that the removal of PCB-containing fixtures complies with the city and state of federal health and safety regulations.”