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Western Queens community activists and elected officials called on the city Monday to notify communities when schools are planned for city-leased sites following the construction of high schools at once-contaminated sites in Long Island City and Ozone Park.
The city's School Construction Authority must currently go before community residents, community boards and the City Council when building schools at sites owned by the city. But the same review standards are not required for sites leased by the city, said David Palmer, a spokesman for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit civil rights law firm that tackles environmental and social justice issues.
The city plans to lease 35 existing buildings citywide and turn them into schools during the next 10 years to alleviate overcrowding in classrooms, Palmer said. He said many of the sites could potentially be toxic.
As part of National Healthy Schools Day, community activists held a news conference Monday near the city's School Construction Authority headquarters on Thomson Avenue in Long Island City, calling on the city to force leased schools to undergo the same amount of public scrutiny as all other schools.
"[The city] says it is not required to provide information to a community when it builds on a toxic site," Palmer said. "Toxic chemicals can affect children's ability to learn and can cause long-term chronic health problems."
Several borough schools have been located on formerly contaminated sites, including Long Island City's Information Technology High School, which was built at a former brownfield site on 44th Road in 2003 where a metal plating warehouse once stood. Ozone Park's PS 65 was found to be sitting on a former factory site with high levels of cancer-causing trichloroethylene, a liquid used for cleaning metal parts.
Studies last year found that InfoTech's site did not pose a health threat to students.
But Kaytlyn Acton-Chadee, 15, a PS 65 student from 1999 to 2002, said she experienced health problems at her former school.
"I developed difficulty breathing by going to school there," she said. "I believe toxins impeded my ability to learn."
In a statement, the city's Department of Education said it properly reviews leased sites.
"We follow all state legal requirements in preparing work plans for cleanup of sites as well as plans to manage sites following remediation," the statement read. "The School Construction Authority conducts air quality tests more extensively than the state requires."
State Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) and state Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) have both introduced bills that would enable the City Council, community boards and residents to have more oversight on schools planned at leased sites in city neighborhoods. Currently, the community does not have a voice in the decision-making process when a school is constructed on a leased site.
Under the bills, the city would be required to solicit public comment from neighborhoods in which the school would be located, the local community board and the City Council as well as submit an environmental review of the site.
Last year, the state Assembly passed legislation to hold the city's construction of schools on leased sites to stricter standards. Sabini accused the state Senate of passing watered-down legislation that did not require the City Council to review leased sites or give community notice.
"The current policy not only puts our children in danger it mutes the voices of members of the community," Sabini said.
Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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