Opened in 2004, Information Technology High School
occupies a four story, 30,000 square foot warehouse that previously housed a textile factory, a metal plating facility, and a 5,000 square foot parking lot. Before the building could be renovated and occupied as a school, however, the entire property had to undergo an extensive cleanup after an investigation by the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) discovered extensive soil and groundwater contamination beneath the building. The contaminants of concern, chlorinated solvents, were used by the metal plating business which occupied the basement and first floor of the building. DEC determined that these chemicals had entered the environment through improperly maintained floor drains. Chlorinated Solvents, VOC’s, and Vapor Intrusion
Chlorinated solvents belong to a class of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs. VOCs, as their name suggests, volatilize, phasing from a liquid state to vapor state at normal temperatures and pressure. In a vapor state these toxic chemicals can escape from contaminated soil and groundwater and enter buildings, penetrating and rising through the foundation. This is known as “vapor intrusion” and depending on the VOC, the dose, and the duration of exposure, vapor intrusion can contribute to serious health problems including cancer and auto-immune diseases.Remediation
To remediate the Information Technology High School property DEC excavated the contaminated soil, installed a vapor barrier beneath the first floor and basement slab, constructed a soil vapor extraction and sub-slab depressurization system, and set up a pump and treatment system for the groundwater. However, because it would have been expensive, if not impossible, to remove all of the polluted soil and groundwater from beneath the Information Technology High School Building, contamination remains. Therefore, the property must periodically be tested to ensure that contaminants are not migrating to locations where they may impact human health. Monthly sampling of soil vapor and quarterly sampling of groundwater is required to ensure that all the remedial systems are working properly and no hazardous vapors are making their way into the school’s indoor air. In addition, the school parking lot must be inspected annually by a certified professional engineer in order to ensure that no lead leaches up through the asphalt.Public Alarm
In September of 2007, New York City Councilmen James Gennaro and Eric Gioia organized a news conference where they accused the city of neglecting to inform the public
about the presence of chlorinated solvents in the indoor at Information Technology High School. The Education Department denied that the school was unsafe, claiming that tests conducted a month before confirmed the air was free of contaminants. These claims were disputed by representatives from the non-profit group New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which requested an independent review of the school’s test results.
The independent review
, conducted by the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and Peter M. Strauss and Associates, determined that the school’s indoor air was indeed “safe” and within legal limits. But, they noted that the New York State limits for chlorinated solvents in indoor air were weak when compared to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) and that the levels of PCE and TCE (chlorinated solvents) measured in the school’s indoor air significantly exceeded EPA guidelines. Further confounding the analysis, the independent reviewers agreed with DEC that the chlorinated solvents in the indoor air were coming from the outdoor air rather than intruding from below the building. Apparently chlorinated solvents at concentrations exceeding EPA guidelines are “typical” of the outdoor air in Queens.Leased Schools, Toxic Properties, and Public Oversight
When New York City builds a school on a property that is known to be contaminated, the local community board must be notified, the New York City Council has an opportunity to vote on the appropriateness of the site, and the site is subject to the State’s standard environmental review process - the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). This notice and review did not occur at Information Technology High School because, according to the Public Authorities Law, the Dept of Education and the School Construction Authority need not follow standard procedure when a school is leased from a third party rather than owned by the city.
In a report on the matter, “The High Cost of Leasing Schools: The Loophole in the Public Authorities Law”
, New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum recommends that the Public Authorities Law be amended to close the “leasing loophole” that allows contaminated properties to be leased as schools without appropriate public oversight. Her office supports the passage of New York State Assembly Bill 7127, which amends the Public Authorities Law to include properties that are leased as schools.