Thank you Chairperson Gennaro of the Committee on Environmental Protection and Chairperson Jackson of the Education Committee for holding this important hearing on the Department of Education’s Plan to increase energy efficiency and environmental quality at schools, including through the removal of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).
PCBs are highly toxic chemicals used in lighting ballasts and caulk in City schools built prior to the 1970s. Prolonged exposure to PCBs is known to result in a broad range of health problems, including infertility, cancer, immune system impairment and diminished I.Q. These dangerous chemicals have no place in buildings where children spend more than a third of their lives each day.
In recent months I have stood with New York City public school families, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), advocates, and other elected officials to demand that the City immediately begin removing lighting fixtures in the 772 school buildings where we know PCBs exist and are potentially causing harm to our City’s children. After months of pressure from the community, the City finally agreed this February to address the problem via a new “energy efficiency and environmental quality plan.” The proposed plan calls for PCB remediation over the course of the next 10 years. It also outlines a 20 year plan to upgrade boilers in 287 schools that burn #4 and #6 heating oils, which recent research suggests may cause genetic mutations in offspring, and increase the risk of asthma in children whose mothers have had exposure to these heating oils.
While I am pleased that the City finally agreed to take action to protect the health of students and school staff in schools, the proposed timeframes for remediation are far too long. Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal has proposed state legislation requiring the replacement of 50 percent of all affected light fixtures within 3 years, and of the remainder within 5 years. I think this is a much more prudent timeframe. In addition, I think it bears repeating that the decision to replace these lighting fixtures originally emerged from the need to guard children’s health and safety from toxins, not merely the desire to “go green.” This is relevant because the EPA’s original testing for PCBs in 5 pilot schools citywide focused on identifying the existence of the toxins in caulk—something which is not, to the best of my knowledge, included in the City’s energy efficiency and environmental quality plan. It remains unclear what plan, if any, is in place to address the problem of PCBs in caulk. It is also unclear what the plan is for replacing boilers that burn dangerous heating oils at some 200 additional schools that are not part of the DOE’s energy efficiency and environmental quality plan.
I recommend that the DOE explore alternatives to its current 10 year remediation process for PCBs. The City should consider the cost-cutting measure of developing a public-private partnership with independent contractors, who would complete necessary PCB remediation at their own cost in exchange for a percentage pay-out of the City’s energy savings over a set number of years. Such a proposal was first made public by T.M. Bier & Associates, in a letter to Council Member Vincent Ignizio.
The advantages to this model are threefold. First and most importantly, it will allow for the safe removal of contaminated lighting fixtures and ensure the health and safety of students who are otherwise in harm’s way. Second the City would save $708 million in upfront costs which could then be diverted to other crucial capital needs, such as creating more desperately needed seats for schools and reducing class sizes. Third, it would create new jobs in the local green-collar economy, where electricians currently face a 30% employment rate, as reported by Crain’s New York this February.
Furthermore, the DOE’s plan to replace boilers burning #4 and #6 heating oil in schools should be extended to all schools with these boilers, not just the 287 in the DOE’s current energy efficiency and environmental quality plan. Replacement should occur as soon as possible, to curb any further, unnecessary risks to the health and safety of both children and adults in affected schools.
We simply cannot wait another 10 to 20 years to remove poisonous materials from our schools. The City’s 1.1 million public school students rely on us to look out for their best interests. Their safety and health must be a top priority.
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