The fact that PCBs have been leaking into New York City’s schools for months is bad enough, but now the situation has been even further complicated with the discovery of asbestos. While inspecting the hundreds of thousands of lighting fixtures for PCB leaks, the Department of Education discovered that the fixtures had been insulated with asbestos, which introduces even more health concerns. The fixtures are being removed as part of a 10 year plan put forth by the city, but the EPA has rejected Bloomberg’s 10 year plan, instead pushing for a 5-year removal timeline. However, the precautions necessary for removing asbestos make it very difficult to work quickly.
“Asbestos comes with its own special rules and containment procedures,” Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said at a City Council hearing. She further explained that the asbestos can only be removed weekends and holidays, “because we have to actually contain the area, and make sure that we’re removing it properly and disposing of it properly.”
Grimm also explained that this is another reason why it will take the city up to 10 years to remove and replace all of the lighting fixtures tainted with PCBs from the city’s schools. Almost 800 schools have contaminated lighting fixtures, and it will cost up to $850 million to remove them. Grimm told council members that the city will be accepting bids from contractors in June for the specific solutions on handling the problem. She also warned that the EPA was “underestimating the complexity of performing work of this type in school buildings.”
However, many people, including Council speaker Christine Quinn, believe otherwise. “I believe, based on [the EPA's] leadership and advice, that five years is a time frame in which we can remove these lighting fixtures,” said Council Speaker Christine Quinn. She also urged the Department of Education to remove PCBs from schools in an “orderly and an effective matter.”
PCBs were banned by congress 30 years ago due to their high toxicity and detrimental health effects, which range from rashes to cancer. The city states that it intends to concentrate on buildings constructed between 1950 and 1966 due to the fact that the magnetic ballasts in those buildings were more likely to leak than the electronic ones used in more modern construction.
The situation, however, is not looking good for the city. The New York Communities for Change has filed notice that it will sue the city under the federal toxic substances control act if NYC doesn’t update its PCB removal plans. The group is also calling on teachers, parents, and other union members to be more involved in the process.