Safe Schools, Healthy Kids Act could give federal aid for schools contaminated with PCBs

By Rob Sgobbo

The fight to eliminate a dangerous toxin from city schools moved to Washington - with a new bill to have the federal government help pay for a massive cleanup.

The Safe Schools, Healthy Kids Act would allow states to compete for federal dollars to fund the removal from schools of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), known to cause chronic illness.

"While PCBs are found in schools across the country, the funding would really benefit New York City," said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Bronx/Queens), who co-sponsored the bill along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) and Jose Serrano (D-South Bronx).

The proposed legislation comes on the heels of a heated battle between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the city.

New York has been resisting federal pressure to remove old lighting ballasts containing the toxin from 740 schools built between 1950 and 1978, when PCBs were legal to use in their construction.

In a letter this month, the EPA demanded that the fixtures be removed and a plan made for taking out PCB-riddled caulking found in school windows and door frames.

"There is positively no excuse for taking chances with the well-being of hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren," said Nadler.

"The EPA has responded firmly to the city's failure to act quickly."

The EPA says prolonged exposure to the toxin can cause brain damage to students and their teachers.

"Despite the fact that these ballasts are in schools and buildings around the country, New York City is the only school district in the nation that the EPA is threatening with an enormous unfunded mandate," said Natalie Ravitz, spokeswoman for the city Department of Education, noting the cleanup would cost $1.18 billion.

The city has no plans for a full-scale remediation until it completes a field test it began in five schools last year. The test is the product of a lawsuit filed by Bronx mom Naomi Gonzalez against the city after her children were denied a transfer from Public School 178 in Co-op City - once tainted with dangerous levels of PCBs.

"I think it's reprehensible that the city is not moving quickly on this," said Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) who will be introducing similar legislation in Albany next session.

"We have to acknowledge this is an issue, and put our heads together to figure out how to pay for this."

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