By Rebecca Henely
While the city Department of Education has promised to replace the toxic PCB lights in Astoria’s IS 204, elected officials, civic members and parents decried how the department initially handled a leak and called for the old florescent lights to be replaced across the city.
“We need to act now,” said IS 204 parent Nancy Nizza. “We need to get the Department of Education to move.”
About 40 people, many of them parents of children at the school or members of the New York Communities for Change civic organization, congregated in front of the school, at 36-41 28th St., Tuesday morning to demand that the department replace all the lights.
Fluorescent lights created before 1979 often contain PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which are odorless yellow liquids used in the lights’ capacitors to store energy. PCBs have been linked to cancer in humans and animals. NYCC is suing the city to get the lights changed more quickly than under its current 10-year plan.
In response to the rally, DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said in an e-mail that the department is in the second year of its plan and was set on staying the course.
“While some people think we should spend more and do this faster, we continue to believe this is an aggressive, environmentally responsible plan that will cause minimum disruption to student learning and generate significant energy savings for the city and taxpayers in the long run,” Feinberg said.
Christina Giorgio is an attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which is representing NYCC in its lawsuit. Giorgio said around Sept. 10 a PCB light had leaked into a school counselor’s room. The DOE planned to replace that light, but not all the PCB lights in the school. This outraged the community since the department was much quicker to replace all lights in a school when a PCB light leaked onto a student at PS 41 in Staten Island.
“The response was very different from the DOE,” Giorgio said.
Feinberg said the DOE would begin a survey of IS 204 and would begin to order fixtures immediately.
But City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside) said parents of schoolchildren and the DOE cannot just be responsive when leaks happen.
“Obviously what happened here at IS 204 shouldn’t happen anywhere,” he said.
State Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan (D-Ridgewood) said the DOE needs an immediate protocol for what to do and suggested working groups be set up to deal with the problem.
“It’s really personal for me when we see something happen that could jeopardize students’ health in the long term,” she said.
Gene Szymanski, of the 23BJ-SEIU union of school cleaners, said the PCBs could also hurt their workers, many of whom work eight hours a day and on weekends.
He said that “$120 million is a drop in the bucket with the budget that’s given to the DOE to run the schools.”
Feinberg said the DOE had put PCB-free and environmentally friendly light fixtures in 83 out of the 700 school buildings that had PCB lights.
“Our plan to replace light fixtures in these buildings is unprecedented compared to other cities, and PCBs are a nationwide issue,” Feinberg said.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4564.