E.P.A. to Inspect New York City Schools for PCB Contamination

Source: New York Times Online, December 21, 2010

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to begin inspecting school buildings in New York City next month for contamination with the toxic chemicals known as PCBs in response to a pilot study that found that the substance was leaking from old light fixtures in some schools.

The decision follows an exchange of letters 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 maintain 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.

Natalie Ravitz, a spokeswoman for the city’sĀ Education Department , said Tuesday 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, and light fixtures were replaced at all three. Two more schools remain to be tested next summer in that study.

But saying that long-term exposure to PCBs was cause for considerable concern, Judith Enck, the E.P.A.s regional administrator for New York, told city officials last week in a letter that the federal agency itself would inspect schools for PCB leaks in light fixtures in 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 its inspectors would visit.

In her letter, Ms. 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 successfully dealt with the issue at considerably less cost than New York City’s estimates.

The protection of public health dictates that measures be taken to reduce this exposure as quickly and completely as reasonably possible, she said.

PCBs are a class of 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.

Last year, the E.P.A. began a nationwide program to inform school administrators and building managers about the potential risks of PCBs in caulk and in lighting ballasts and about ways to minimize exposure.

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 E.P.A. 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. But federal officials said they were particularly concerned about the levels of contamination leaking from aging ballasts, leading to peak levels of airborne PCBs.

Ms. Enck said the city could undertake the retrofits over several years to soften the financial blow and noted that upgraded lighting systems with more energy-efficient models had the added advantage of reducing electric bills.

On Monday, Representatives Joseph Crowley of Queens, Jos E. Serrano of the Bronx and Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan announced that they had introduced federal legislation to establish a grant program to help school districts pay for cleanups of PCB contamination.

In October, the E.P.A. came under pressure from members of Congress and the United Federation of Teachers, among others, to conduct thorough testing of the schools and establish firm guidelines. The letter was signed by all 13 House members who represent the city and by Linda B. Rosenthal, a New York State assemblywoman whose district includes Public School 199, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where contamination was found last summer.

The E.P.A. has responded in a tremendous way, Ms. Rosenthal said Tuesday. The E.P.A. 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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