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Standing up for safe schools

UFT, politicians and parents slam city’s 10-year plan to rid schools of PCBs

UFT Vice President Sterling Roberson (at podium) slammed the DOE for its mishandling of toxic PCBs in school lighting fixtures at a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Feb. 23. The bill’s sponsor is Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (left).

UFT Chapter Leader Peter Cohen, a teacher at PS 163 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was interviewed about his school’s experience with PCBs. “I’ve seen ballasts smoking, and we had to leave the room because of the smoke,” he said.

Bucking to pressure from federal officials, parents and the UFT, the city announced on Feb. 23 that it would spend $708 million in capital funds to replace light fixtures containing the toxic chemicals known as PCBs in nearly 800 city school buildings over the next 10 years, a timeline that critics called too stretched out.

“It’s pretty clear that the mayor is kicking the can into the next administration,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler called the 10-year plan “far too long to allow children to be exposed to cancer-causing chemicals.”

Health experts say that PCBs do not pose an immediate health threat, but that the longer the problem persists, the higher the likelihood that the chemicals could do harm.

DOE officials unveiled their new plan on the same day that its critics assembled on the steps of City Hall for a press conference in support of a state bill that calls for the city to replace all affected lighting fixtures within three years and to test all schools to ensure they are free of PCBs.

All nine schools spot-checked by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this school year tested positive for elevated levels of PCBs, alarming parents and politicians. The EPA found light fixtures that had leaked or were leaking PCBs in each of these 9 schools.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, the bill’s sponsor, blasted the DOE for its too-little, too-late response, saying it showed a “blatant disregard for the health and welfare of New York City schoolchildren.”

UFT officials promised that the union would continue its advocacy until the problem is properly addressed.

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