Non-profits urge DOE to environmentally review leased schools

August 30, 2011 02:59PM

[Updated at 3.40 p.m. with statement from Dennis Walcott] On Aug. 5, Department of Education spokesperson Marge Feinberg announced that PS51X, the Bronx New School on Jerome Avenue, would be relocated to the St. Martin of Tours school two miles away, following the discovery of a chemical contaminant on the site. During a routine inspection in the lead up to a lease renewal by DOE, workers had detected extremely high levels of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent used to de-grease metal parts, also linked to central nervous system problems and forms of cancer when a person is exposed for intense or prolonged periods. It remains unclear how much of the solvent was found, but sources told Gothamist it was up to 10,000 times the amount considered safe by health agencies.

Parents of the Bronx New School’s students grew even more anxious upon finding that the DOE had made the initial discovery in January, but not made moves to notify parents or relocate students until official results came through in July. In its defense, DOE executives said the exposure presented no immediate health risk to students. Still, DOE Chancellor Dennis Walcott issued an apology.

Now, hot off the heels of a request by Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz that the incident be further investigated, two non-profit organizations — New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and New York Communities for Change — are demanding immediate environmental testing and disclosure of all New York City leased schools.

In a letter to Walcott, dated today, the organizations write: “Although egregious, the actions and omissions that occurred at PS51 are consistent with DOE practice at leased school sites. These recent events bring sharply into focus the need for stronger environmental review and increased transparency at all currently leased sites. The DOE’s practice of performing environmental audits of leased school sites only when the leases come up for renewal is seriously deficient.”

The organizations are demanding that DOE conduct immediate indoor air quality testing of all 31 existing leased school sites which have not yet undergone environmental review and publically disclose preliminary indoor air quality results and all documents relating to environmental review, investigation and remediation of the 65 school leases that have been renewed since 2002.

“Protecting the health of our children requires that the DOE act with far greater urgency and vigilance in ensuring the environmental health and safety of our schools,” the letter says. “Parents have a right to know their children are attending safe, healthy learning environments.”

When contacted for a statement, Walcott said: “DOE is expediting the testing of the 31 other school leases that have not had a prior environmental audit. Since the DOE initiated school leasing reform, 67 environmental audits were completed prior to our review of the 51X lease. This is the first lease we are walking away from due to environmental issues.”
— Katherine Clarke