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After years of legal wrangling over the fate of a South Bronx high school built on contaminated land, the city's Department of Education (DOE) has agreed to re-test for toxins inside the school and to form a task force to help address the problem.

Soundview Educational Campus opened last September amid controversy from residents, who accused the city of bypassing the public participation and environmental quality review required for a special permit to build a school in a manufacturing district. As first reported in the Bronx News, DOE instead obtained a zoning override and built the school on the former site of Loral Electronics Systems, which closed in 1996. JJ Lyons and Associates bought the abandoned property in April 1999 and began using it as a parking lot, where a city-employed West Nile pesticide company parked its trucks.

“We’ve really been struggling since 2000 on this site,” said Mary McKinney, a community activist who formed Concerned Residents Organization (CRO) and led a protest against the West Nile trucks five years ago. “Before the school, businesses would come and look at the site. MTA was going to come in, but they decided it was too contaminated to park their buses there. And now we put our children [there].”

Despite the site’s history, the New York City School Construction Authority (SCA) entered into a 20-year, $1 million leasing deal with JJ Lyons in 2003, which was approved by the DOE. When the high school opened a year later, students were attending classes on a site that–according to an independent review commissioned by the SCA–contained dangerous levels of carcinogens like arsenic, barium, cadmium, and chromium, along with lead and mercury, which can cause neurological damage.

The source of the contamination has not been definitively identified and there are several competing theories, which the task force will explore. While the presence of chemicals from the Loral site is the most obvious explanation, Allegiance Resources Corporation, a private environmental consulting firm hired by local residents, has also raised the possibility of a leak in the sewer line that borders the school. This problem is compounded, advocates say, by JJ Lyons, which continues to use the property as an illegal parking lot for tractor trailers used to haul garbage. JJ Lyons President Abraham Lester did not return repeated calls for comment.

“A lot of these problems could have been avoided if the city had followed New York State Public Authorities Law,” said Janette Wipper, an environmental justice attorney with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), who is representing the neighbors.

Residents say they had no knowledge of the school being built until the construction crews arrived. They quickly contacted Bronx Community Board 9 District Manager Francisco Gonzalez, who helped organize the community response.

Attorneys from NYLPI, including Wipper, sent a Sept. 12 letter to DOE Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, outlining their concerns. Although the DOE still contends that the building is safe for its 600 students, it has agreed to perform maintenance and monitoring on interior conditions and conduct further testing of indoor air quality. The DOE will also make the results available to the community, since many teachers have called NYPLI to ask about the conditions in their school.

In addition, DOE agreed to set up a task force that includes representatives of the Concerned Residents Organization, Allegiance Resources Corporation, NYLPI, CB 9, and the city departments of Education, Buildings, Environmental Protection and Sanitation. The group’s first meeting is scheduled for Oct. 11, when they will discuss illegal activity at the former Loral site.

“There is no formal agenda,” said DOE spokesperson Margie Feinberg. “The purpose of this initial meeting is to bring the community residents and school together. We will discuss several areas of concern, including the truck parking.”

Wipper hopes the discussion will convince the city to either force Lester to comply with the law or shut him down permanently. “The community’s ultimate goal is to develop the site into something positive for the community,” Wipper said. “Not have some industrial site with dumpsters and trucks carrying municipal solid waste.”

Although the indoor air quality testing cannot be conducted until winter, McKinney is pleased with the recent progress–noting that it has been nearly five years coming. Yet, she still hopes the DOE will test the soil beneath the school, not just the air inside.

“We want the school,” McKinney said. “It’s very nice. But we want it safe on the inside and out.”

–Bryan Farrell

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