As City Leases Industrial Sites for Schools, Concern About Safety Builds

August 17, 2011 at 9:48 am

The heat is on the Department of Education this summer, after environmental tests at a Bronx elementary school revealed yet another case of contamination.

Just five weeks before the start of the new school year, parents at PS 51X, known as the Bronx New School, received surprising news from the Department of Education. In a letter dated Aug. 5, the department announced that it was closing the current building and moving the school to an undisclosed location. Air quality tests had revealed unsafe levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent. Although the New York state Department of Health stated that there were “no immediate medical concerns for students and staff,” the city determined that adequate remediation could not be completed before the school starts in September.

After 20 years, the city has determined that the site of the Bronx New School in Bedford Park is contaminated and so has shut the building. Other schools on leased property remain open and could pose a danger to the health of their students and staff. Photo courtesy of Gotham Gazette

The city leased the Bedford Park property, a former industrial site, in 1991. For two decades, it has operated as a school; but some parents now say that their children have complained of chronic headaches.

PS51X now joins a growing list of schools across the city that may be toxic. Under current law, the city can lease property and open a school on it without notifying community members, or making public any concerns about environmental hazards in the area. With approximately 96 schools throughout the city on leased properties and more in the pipeline, this could affect tens of thousands of children.

The Hazard in the Bronx

Many parents had no idea Bronx New School sat on a former industrial site. According to the city, the building’s lease came up for renewal, triggering the environmental tests. Initial sampling occurred in January and found levels of TCE 10 times higher than the health department’s standard for safety. A second round of tests, conducted in March, sampled the soil vapor beneath the school’s basement floorboards, finding levels of TCE more than 10,000 times than the limit set by the state.

Now, parents, teachers and environmental advocates are demanding to know why the city waited so long to move the school. They will have the chance to ask such questions at a meeting with schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott scheduled for this Thursday, Aug. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Bronx High School of Science auditorium (75 W. 205th St.).

Education department spokesperson Marge Feinberg explained that the DOE waited for final scientific determination on the tests, which came in mid-July, before making a decision about relocating the school. She also emphasized that the highest levels of TCE were found under the building, in an area not used by teachers or students. But environmental advocacy groups worry that TCE vapors could have been migrating upward into classrooms from underneath the floor for some time.

Feinberg maintains that the city is “very conservative” when it comes to making sure schools are safe for occupancy. “Since the first term of the Bloomberg administration, we have renewed more than 65 school leases, and 51X is the first one where environmental conditions have caused us to abandon the lease renewal,” she said. The city will conduct environmental audits on another 31 leased school sites over the next eight weeks, though it has not made a list of those schools available.

According to Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, before 2003 the city did not necessarily conduct environmental investigations when it leased properties. It is unclear, then, whether the Bronx school had ever been tested before now.

Transforming Brownfields into School Fields

Placing schools on former industrial properties is not a new practice. Over the past few decades, the city’s own school buildings have reached and even exceeded capacity while other available space has become increasingly scarce. Former industrial properties are often the only sites large enough to accommodate new school buildings. “Our leasing program has been extremely successful in identifying sites for new school build-outs in districts where finding new school construction sites has been extraordinarily difficult,” said Feinberg. Over the years, the education department’s construction arm, the School Construction Authority has spent billions of dollars to remediate toxins.

However, a growing number of parents and advocates question whether, in its haste to make good on promises to reduce overcrowding, the School Construction Authority takes too many shortcuts. In particular, they charge that the city deliberately keeps the public in the dark when it comes to remediation plans. Lenny Siegel of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, an independent consulting firm that has been called in to evaluate several New York City school sites, told the Daily News, “Someone should be on the ball making sure the air, water and soil are safe.”

Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.


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