Parents and teachers are worried about what they’re not being told
Paul Helgeson’s students struggle to overcome special needs, poverty, language barriers and some of the highest asthma rates in the country – a combination of maddeningly harsh realities.
He knew about those realities when he accepted a position as a District 75 high school special needs teacher at the Mott Haven Educational Complex. But it’s what he doesn’t know that has him worried.
“Whether what’s buried 100 feet below the school is affecting anyone, who knows?” he said. “We’re out of the loop on that one.”
The Mott Haven Educational Complex opened in 2010, a sprawling facility housing four schools on a contaminated site formerly occupied by a manufactured gas plant. But now, nearly six years later, annual reports required to assess the effectiveness of environmental cleanup and the safety of the site remain hard to find. Only one of the five required annual reports was made available to the Herald during a recent month-long investigation that involved multiple phone calls, emails and office visits to schools, city offices and agencies.
The site, located at 730 Concourse Village West, was contaminated with benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, perchloroethylene – also known as PCE or tetrachloroethylene – and other harmful chemicals. Legally required cleanup was completed prior to construction, which included removing part of the contaminated soil, covering what remained with a barrier and installing a depressurization system to prevent vapors from seeping into the building.
While the cleanup wasn’t legally contested, it took a lengthy lawsuit by the Bronx Committee for Toxic Free Schools to force the city to draft and implement a long-term monitoring plan, which is the only way to ensure the vapor barrier and depressurization systems are working properly.
Bronx Leadership Academy II High School, New Explorers High School, Urban Assembly for Careers in Sports, KIPP Academy Elementary School and District 75 programs are all located in the complex, which can seat nearly 2,300 students. District 75 programs are located throughout the city to provide services for students who have significant special needs such as autism, sensory impairment and significant emotional or cognitive delays.
The lawsuit centered on the city’s failure to inform the community of long-term monitoring plans to protect teachers and students in the facility’s schools. After several appeals by the city, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in 2012 that the education department must monitor the facility and make the results publically available.
But, as Helgeson pointed out, despite the lawsuit, many students, parents and teachers still don’t know the reports exist or how to access them.
“It’s very important because my daughter has asthma,” said Lureena Riley, who was picking up her 7-year-old daughter from the elementary school. “I’ve never even heard of the testing.”
That concerns Lenny Siegel, executive director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, who reviewed the long-term monitoring plan prior to the facility’s opening.
“I don’t think the students or their families were ever fully aware of the level of contamination left on the site,” he said.
Siegel said the monitoring plan is robust, but must be properly implemented. Of the remaining contaminants, he said PCE is among the most dangerous. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to PCE has been shown to cause respiratory and eye irritation, dizziness, headache, sleepiness and changes in mood or behavior.
“Chances are, kids are safe, but whenever you build something like this on contaminated property, you have to take steps to protect them, because the contamination’s not going away,” he said. Unless all contamination is removed, a long-term monitoring plan is required to remain in effect.
When asked if they or their parents knew about the required monitoring, Elaiza Delarosa, 16, and Taylor Tequora, 16, both sophomores at New Explorers shook their heads emphatically, saying they knew nothing about the site’s history.
It’s not just parents and students who are uninformed.
“That’s news to me,” said Roberto Rosario, assistant principal at Urban Assembly for Careers in Sports, who also said he knew nothing about the required monitoring.
Rosario referred questions to Campus Dean Lou Schlanger, who said a team visited the school in late January to assess the vapor barrier beneath the building and to conduct testing. He confirmed the team has been in the facility before, but said he didn’t have access to test results or monitoring reports and referred further questions to the Department of Education.
Likewise, KIPP Building Facilities Manager Edward Kamkhin also suggested contacting the DOE and said via email that KIPP is not responsible for monitoring the site.
A spokesperson for the DOE confirmed in an email that monitoring for soil gas vapors is done by the department monthly, adding that an inspection and formal report is compiled annually and sent to Bronx Community Board 4, which is where parents can access annual reports.
Following several phone calls, emails and a recent in-person visit to Board 4, the Herald was able to view an Annual Site Management Report covering the period from August 2013 to July 2014. The report indicated no safety concerns.
But despite multiple follow-up requests to both Board 4 and the Department of Education, the Herald was unable to view reports covering August 2010 through June 2013 or August 2014 to the present.
A representative from ATC Associates Inc., an environmental consulting firm hired by the city to assist with monitoring, said the company has copies of reports, but is unable to forward them without the Department of Education’s approval, which was not received in time for publication.
“Even if the results aren’t bad, I want to know what they are,” said Pedro Perez, parent of two KIPP students. “We need to be notified for the health of our children.”
Another KIPP parent, Bonifacio Soto, agreed. “A lot of parents would want to know about that,” he said.
Teachers want to know too. But like most parents and teachers, Helgeson doesn’t have time for that kind of run around. He’s busy working feverishly to help his students prepare to enter the adult world, a daunting task for students with moderate to severe special needs, and he says he can only hope what he doesn’t know won’t hurt them.
“We have so many issues and only so much time,” he said.