Loophole let DOE take years to test toxic site
By Nikki Dowling
The Department of Education has announced that it will relocate the Bronx New School, PS 51, which it failed to test for nearly 20 years, to a school more than two miles away because PS 51 is too toxic to open in its current location at 3200 Jerome Ave. in September.
Earlier this month, officials revealed that they found unacceptably high levels of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene in the air and soil surrounding PS 51. The school formerly housed a lamp-making manufacturer and was listed as one of the city’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sites, meaning it housed or produced hazardous waste.
And while the Department of Education said it will test sooner in the future, the DOE may be the very reason it took so long to identify the school as toxic to begin with.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott announced the relocation to St. Martin of Tours School, at East 182nd Street and Crotona Avenue, and spoke to parents at a meeting for PS 51 families at the Bronx High School of Science on Aug. 18. But he failed to answer questions about why PS 51 was not tested for decades and whether students are in danger.
Trichloroethylene, or TCE, is an industrial solvent that can enter air or water, although it was not found in PS 51’s water source. TCE exposure can result in dizziness, headaches, confusion, euphoria, facial numbness and weakness. It can also cause developmental issues and cancer, although the most serious health risks are generally caused only by TCE-contaminated water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The school was tested in February as part of a routine lease-renewal procedure that was instituted in 2003 under mayoral control. The DOE did not act sooner because of a 1988 state law that requires environmental review of only newly built schools, not leased spaces.
The New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have lobbied for a bill that would require the DOE to submit a site plan to the mayor and City Council for review before opening a school at a leased site. This would close the so-called “leasing loophole," making the environmental review process for new and leased schools the same.
“The DOE has fought it for a long time,” NYLPI staff attorney Dawn Philip said of the bill.
KeywordsDepartment of Education, DOE, Bronx New School, PS 51, trichloroethylene, TCE, toxic, Nikki Dowling