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City sees the light on expediting fixture removals

After years of pressure from parents, the UFT and other concerned groups, the mayor announced on Oct. 17 that the city will speed up the removal of PCB-laden light fixtures that have threatened students and teachers in 655 affected schools. The expedited cleanup, which is part of a $1 billion funding plan to accelerate critical infrastructure projects, followed new reports of light fixtures leaking the toxic chemicals at three schools this school year.

The biggest portion of the $1 billion plan — $290 million over the next two years — is earmarked for school repairs and upgrades, including replacing the light fixtures. City Comptroller John Liu was instrumental in designing the accelerated plan.

“This is great news for teachers and students who have been attending schools with PCB light fixtures,” said UFT Director of Safety and Health Chris Proctor. “The union has been outspoken about the need to expedite the replacement of these fixtures. It’s a win-win for everyone because it removes light fixtures that are a toxic hazard and replaces them with new fixtures that are much more energy-efficient.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who supported the speedup, acknowledged the union’s insistent concern over the inadequacy of the city’s original 10-year plan to replace the fixtures.

“We’ve heard parents and teachers raise urgent concerns about the presence of these chemicals for a long time,” she said. “That’s why we’ve made PCB removal a priority in the accelerated plan.”

Despite court actions and angry parent rallies — parents from PS 146 and MS 448 in Carroll Gardens rallied in June — since the summer of 2010, when elevated levels of PCBs were first discovered in light fixtures, the DOE has been slow to respond, insisting that the PCB levels were within safe ranges. In February 2011, following an outcry from parents, the DOE created a 10-year plan to remove and replace the light fixtures in all affected schools, a timeline that critics insisted was far too slow. But it was just days into the new school year when a class at PS 41 on Staten Island and a guidance counselor at IS 204 in Queens had to be evacuated from their rooms when lighting fixtures leaked the toxic PCB contaminants. The UFT immediately sent its industrial hygienists into both schools to ensure the contaminants were removed and to reassure staff that the environment was safe.

It was six days after a third hazardous leak was reported, at PS 327 in Brooklyn on Oct. 11, that the city announced the new timetable for replacing the light fixtures.

The PCB threat comes from the now banned “T-12” light fixtures that were used in schools from 1950 to 1978.

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