UPPER WEST SIDE — Parents are losing a major advocate in their fight against toxic PCBs in the city's schools, as the leading activists are taking a temporary step back from the battle to enter mediation with the Department of Education.
The New York Lawyers for the Public Interest — which sued the DOE in 2011, saying the city needed to expedite the removal of PCBs from aging light fixtures in schools — is now in mediation with the DOE and can no longer legally be on the front lines of searching for PCB leaks and calling on officials to fix them, a representative of the group said.
"We’re asking that you call your elected officials, call the media yourself and mobilize folks yourselves," Gigi Gazon, an organizer with NYLPI, told parents, school leaders and District 3 Community Education Council members Monday, urging them to take the lead on advocacy.
"If we’re in mediation, we have to give the DOE the benefit of the doubt right now," added Gazon, who hopes the process will expedite the timeline.
Gazon said NYLPI, which has led efforts to train custodians to search for PCBs and galvanized parents to walk through schools to examine lights, was confident the grassroots network of concerned parents could lead the charge.
She added that parents and education leaders must "be on the front lines instead of us," because, "these lights are still failing...these things continue to leak even while we’re in this process," she said.
In August 2011, NYLPI filed a lawsuit against the city saying that more than 1,200 schools citywide may be PCB-contaminated and that the city's plan to take 10 years to remediate the chemicals is too slow.
The city moved to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, but last month Judge Sterling Johnson rejected the motion.
"The judge threw the book at [the city]… and wrote a scathing decision saying that [the city was] willfully moving slowly [in PCB remediation]," Gazon said.
Right after the decision, the city reached out to NYLPI and asked the group to begin mediation, with both parties agreed to do, Gazon said.
The city and Department of Education declined to comment, citing ongoing legal issues.
Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal has sponsored legislation that if passed would force the DOE to remediate all PCBs within two years, rather than the 10 years the DOE proposed. There are currently active PCB leaks in 225 of the city's public schools, according to officials.
There are eight school buildings on the Upper West Side that have visible leaking lights on which work has been prioritized, including: P.S. 76, P.S. 83, P.S. 84, P.S. 247, P.S. 87, P.S. 242, P.S. 145 and P.S. 191, according to the DOE's list as of April 12.
In the case of P.S. 87, parents didn't find out about a classroom leak until three months after it happened, in early March — an incident still fresh in parents' minds and contributing to distrust of the DOE.
One of the reasons the DOE has given to explain the long timeline for remediation is that work must be done while kids are not in school.
Gazon said she didn't know how many months the mediation with the DOE would take, but that the city is "going to be forced to be more forthcoming with us," about their remediation plans and that NYLPI would push for a better timeline.
Rosenthal said she would continue to push for her bill, which is sponsored by State Sen. Andrew Lanza, who represents the 24th District on Staten Island.
"While I am hopeful that the mediation will result in an expedited timeline, my experience with the city on this issue inspires little confidence," she said.