Battling Over Where To Build New Schools

Some parents and activists differ with the city about how to determine that leased land is nontoxic enough for public school use.

By: By Shreema Mehta

When Kate Acton’s daughter developed respiratory problems within three months of beginning second grade at P.S. 65 in Queens, Acton could not figure out how it started.

“But then she said, 'Whenever I’m in the school, 20 minutes or a half hour afterward I start feeling nauseous and have a hard time breathing.’ I didn’t think of the school” at first, said the mother of two, “but there’s a lot of parents and children that are going through the same symptoms.” Acton began protesting the school facilities after her daughter’s doctor diagnosed asthma and suggested looking at the school for a possible cause. Though her daughter transferred out of the school in 2002, Acton remains vocal about school safety concerns, staying in touch with parents of children currently enrolled in the school.

Acton, along with other parents and community organizations, alleges that the school, which opened in 1996, was built on land contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) because of the site's previous use as an airplane parts factory. The school also has experienced gas and carbon monoxide leaks. The site was leased, not bought, by the city Department of Education – thus bypassing the more rigorous reviews that schools built on city-owned land go through.

Leased public school sites have been drawing greater attention since DOE announced its plan in 2004 to build 90 new schools by 2009 to alleviate overcrowding. As part of this, DOE has built, or plans to build, on land that has housed factories, dry cleaning facilities and fire department refueling stations and thus is, or may be, affected by such contaminants as TCE, gasoline, mercury, arsenic and other toxins.

And while schools built on city-owned land require both City Council and mayoral approval, and undergo a comprehensive state environmental review that includes a provision for public input, those built on leased land go through a shorter process, with no public comment or review. Leased sites account for nearly a third of all schools being built.

This fall, the state legislature is anticipated to finalize a bill narrowing the gap between the two review processes. Activists say the quicker lease-review process can lead to the rushed approval of sites that are not properly cleaned up, exposing students to contamination. They support a bill passed by the assembly in June and sponsored by Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, a Democrat from Queens who calls the current rules for leased sites a “loophole” that should be closed by requiring City Council to approve leased sites for schools.

The state Senate, however, passed a bill in July that would require a public comment period if basic environmental reviews reveal site problems, but no Council oversight. The DOE supports this bill, sponsored by Senator Frank Padavan, a Republican from Queens.

“Leasing is an important component of the ongoing effort to provide desperately needed seats on an expedited basis when sites for school construction cannot be found in the more densely populated areas of the City,” DOE spokesperson Margie Friedman said in an e-mail. “The Department works closely with the [School Construction Authority] to ensure new and leased facilities are environmentally safe for our children and staff, and supports adding the reviews required under this legislation. …These provisions would provide an opportunity for the public to react to potential school sites without imposing a process that would create delays that could easily derail the leasing process.”

Environmental groups such as the Healthy Schools Network and West Harlem Environmental Action, or WE-ACT, have been fighting for toxin-free schools for years by documenting air pollution and contamination, pushing for “green” construction and protesting school openings on controversial sites. The leasing policy did not come to light until 2004, when New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit law firm, began working with the Bronx activist group Concerned Residents Organization to examine the opening of the Soundview two-school campus in the Bronx, built on the grounds of a former weapons factory.

“We realized they hadn’t done a full environmental impact statement and we realized that the Council hadn’t reviewed it,” said David Palmer, an attorney with the lawyers' group. “When we looked at the law we thought they should.” Since then, other organizations joined in to call for greater reviews of leased school sites.
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But community organizers and environmental advocates say a public comment period alone will not do enough to ensure that DOE considers residents’ concerns about hazards. Parents and others fear that some land may contain enough toxins to cause both short- and long-term ill effects. Chemicals – such as TCE, which is used to clean metal parts and was found underneath P.S. 65 in Queens – vaporize from groundwater easily and can cause headaches, nausea and dizziness. Activists also find it worth noting that close, long-term contact with chemicals can lead to organ damage and cancer.

“We go to these hearings … to give our piece and provide the information we have. But there isn’t a mandate that they need to be addressed in any way,” said Kizzy Charles-Guzman, environmental policy coordinator for WE-ACT. Charles-Guzman thinks the Assembly bill would give the public the influence needed to ensure the city fully cleans up sites found to be contaminated. “How they’re going to deal with monitoring, that’s what we want to have an opportunity to comment on,” she said.

Padavan sponsored the Senate bill, according to spokesman Charles Assini, after talks with the School Construction Authority about the “problems” the Assembly version could create – namely, that the city may lose out to another interested land-leaser as it waits for Council to review it.

According to DOE, it presently takes five to nine months for a school built on city-owned land to pass both the mayoral and council review required, plus the more comprehensive review mandated by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). The SEQRA review, which provides for public comment, looks at not just contamination but a wide range of measurements of the health of a site, such as the flow of traffic it would draw or how it would affect the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

The Assembly bill does not require a full SEQRA review but would add a public comment period, as well as 20 days for Council approval. In DOE's view, that's enough time to “discourage a landlord from keeping his or her property off the market,” threatening use for schools, according to DOE spokeswoman Feinberg.

Attorney Palmer counters that there is “no evidence” that the city is in danger of losing land. “The relatively small time that the process may be slowed down, we think, is worth it … for the potential benefits,” he said. “I don’t think contaminated properties are going like hotcakes in New York City.”

Not all new schools are built on land formerly used for industry, however, and most sites are contamination-free. According to research commissioned by Palmer's group, the new leased properties in the DOE’s capital plan contain at least five sites with potential problems out of 18 examined. Advocates fear that new sites received rushed approval with potentially insufficient cleanup plans – like what happened at the Soundview campus. The two smaller alternative high schools (Bronx Academy and Felisa Rincon de Gautier Institute of Law and Public Policy) built there in 2004 at the site of Loral, a former weapons manufacturing factory acquired by Lockheed Martin, are a strong example of what not to repeat, they say.

“The main issue is that the school is located on a portion of this contaminated site and the rest of the site hasn’t been cleaned up. So there are dilapidated buildings and all sorts of things parked on the site,” said Veronica Eady, an NYLPI attorney, who is working with local residents to convince the city to implement a longer-term air monitoring plan at the Soundview campus.

Though the city has conducted cleanups at the site, environmental advocates say those plans have not eliminated the possibility of air contamination, because volatile chemicals can vaporize, migrate through the soil, and possibly enter buildings. According to a report released by the School Construction Authority this March, however, an air quality test showed that “indoor air quality at the Site is not an environmental concern,” and concentrations of evaporating compounds such as TCE have either decreased or remained steady over the past two years.

Guzman of WE-ACT said that finding toxins near schools is especially disconcerting. “If the proposed development was a parking lot, we wouldn’t be as concerned. Children have a considerably weaker immune system. They’re a lot more susceptible to chemicals. And the consistent exposure we’re worried about,” she said.

Given all the unknowns, many activists say listening to residents who know the neighborhood will only help the city choose safe sites and draft adequate cleanup plans.

“We’re not saying that a land needs to be pristine. We need to have a stake in how the land is cleaned up,” Guzman said.

- Shreema Mehta