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August 2011 Archives

PLAYING CHICKEN WITH CONTAMINATION: Bronx New School Officials Show How Not To Protect Children

Basin City, Washington got it right. Last Thursday, Basin City took tests of the system that feeds water into the local elementary school, and found E. coli bacteria.  So, school officials immediately notified the parents of the children attending Basin City Elementary School.  They also decided that the school would be closed right away (on Monday) and "until further notice, for the safety of the students and staff."  [See this Tri-City Herald article of 8/28/11] This is what responsible adults in charge of a school do.  They put the safety of the children first; they tell the parents what's going on.  When in the slightest doubt about whether the environment of the school poses a danger to the children, they close the school until there is no longer any doubt.  I'm sure this decision caused great inconvenience to the Basin City school children, their families, teachers at the school, administrators, etc.  And it will probably cost the school district a good deal of money, too....especially if the school is closed for any significant period of time.  But it was the right thing to do.  When it comes to children's health, you protect first, and deal with the financial and convenience issues later. Now, I don't mention this to applaud the Basin City officials.  They simply did what they are paid to do.  Protecting the school's children is their first job; when they do that job correctly, it's to be expected.   It's not heroic. No, I mention Basin City because it stands in such shocking contrast to the reckless behavior of the adults charged with protecting the children who attend the Bronx New School in New York. Beginning in January of this year--and then again in March, April and May--officials in the New York City Department of Education, like their counterparts in Basin City, Washington, got back test results showing that something was very wrong in the school's environment.  In the case of the Bronx New School, it was contamination in the air at the school.  Contamination by a chemical known as "TCE". Bronx New School officials also learned this: TCE causes cancer.  It is especially dangerous to children, and especially dangerous when in the air.....because the children breathe it all the time. Worse yet: the levels of the TCE discovered at the school were up to 10,000 times what the City's own Department of Health says is safe. 10,000 times. So, they got the kids out of the school, right?  They told their parents, right?  A no-brainer, right? Sadly, no.  What the Bronx New School officials did was as opposite as could be from the decision makers in Basin City.  In a display of horrifyingly bad judgment, they kept the kids in the school until the end of the school year--for a full 6 months after the discovery of the dangerous TCE contamination.  Foolishly, they pretended that they could sweep the TCE out of the school's air at night, by opening all the windows... only to close the windows up in the morning, and allow the TCE to re-accumulate in the school's cafeteria, hallway and classrooms in time for the kids to breathe it the next day. Oh, and they kept all of this a secret from the parents of those kids.  They only told the parents after the school year was over.  When it was too late for the parents to do anything to protect their kids. For this, the Bronx New School officials have been justifiably blasted by the parents, and by public officials, like New York City Council Member Oliver Koppell.  Koppell labeled the failure to tell parents about the contamination both "egregious" and "totally unacceptable", and said that the delay in informing parents "has created anger and distrust among the parents.....and concerns about their children's health."  [See this BoogieDowner post dated 8/25/11] School officials are now lamely defending their inaction and secrecy by saying that they didn't have the "final scientific determination" until near the end of the school year....so, they couldn't really do anything before then to protect the kids, or even warn their parents. Really? What is it about a TCE hit of 10,000 times the "safe" level that makes you think you can, or should, wait for some consultant's "final" report before you can tell the parents, or protect their kids?  And if you had no "final" scientific determination to confirm that the situation was indeed dangerous, why would you open the windows at night, and try to blow the TCE out of the school? At the end of the day, it's really not about "final scientific determinations", is it?  I'll bet that the Basin City folks still don't have a "final scientific determination" about their water contamination. But, they didn't need one.  More than a consultant's written "final" report, they have common sense and decency....and a basic respect for the community's children and their parents. That is what's missing at the Bronx New School.

OPEN WINDOWS, SHUT MOUTHS: Bronx New School Officials Keep Parents in the Dark About School's Chemical Dangers

The TCE contamination discovered earlier this year in the air that the kids breathe at the Bronx New School was so bad that the City's environmental consultant instructed the New York City School Construction Authority (NYCSCA) to "immediate[ly]...open all windows in the first and second floor classrooms at the end of each school day....until the regular school session ends", and "operat[e] the building HVAC system in summer mode".  (my emphasis added) All in the hopes of blowing out of the school the dangerous levels of TCE in the air that had accumulated during the day. [See the consultant's report provided here, at "Executive Summary", at pages 1-2] Then, when the kids came back to school in the morning, the windows would be shut again. No parents were told that this was going on. And, because the windows were to be shut by start-of-school in the morning, there would be no reason for any parent to ask questions.  No parents were told that their kids were going to school every day in a building where the TCE contamination levels surpassed--sometimes by a shocking amount (see below)--the supposedly "safe" TCE levels established by the New York Department of Health. And I've seen nothing to prove that--after the windows were once again shut for the full school day, with the kids inside -- the dangerous TCE levels did not return for the kids to breathe in their classrooms.  Presumably, the dangerous levels did return, because as soon as the kids left school for the day, the windows were once again to be thrown open. Here is what led to the "Open Windows, Shut Mouths" policy for the New Bronx School: January, 2011: NYCSCA's consultant discovers from a search of public records that there are at least FOURTEEN "environmental conditions" either on school property, or very nearby, that might pose a threat to the kids attending the school. (The report does not say why the NYCSCA did not review these records years earlier.) The consultant also discovers TCE contamination in the air in the school's First Floor Cafeteria and the Hallway Near the School's Entrance that is TEN TIMES higher than levels allowed by the Department of Health. [See consultant report at pages 3-4, 12]. Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. March, 2011: More TCE testing.  This time the consultant discovers TCE concentrations in the school's basement sub-slab, underneath the Cafeteria, of TEN THOUSAND TIMES Department of Health maximums.  TCE in other sub-slab locations is also discovered to be ONE HUNDRED FORTY to SEVEN THOUSAND TIMES the allowed maximum. [See consultant report at p. 13TCE in the sub-slab is important because from there it can migrate into the building, and wind up in the air that the kids breathe. Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. April, 2011: More TCE testing. TCE once again is found in the Cafeteria and Hallway at up to FOUR TIMES the allowed maximum, and in the basement at SIXTY TIMES the allowed maximum.  TCE is also found once again in the sub-slab, this time at levels underneath the Cafeteria and elsewhere at up to SIX THOUSAND, TWO HUNDRED TIMES the allowed maximum. [See consultant report at p. 13] Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. May, 2011: While TCE levels in the Cafeteria and Hallway are found-- but only right after ventilation--to be reduced,  TCE levels in the basement actually INCREASE, with levels there reported to be nearly ONE HUNDRED TWENTY TIMES the allowed maximum.  [See consultant report at p. 12] Yet no parents are told any of this, and the kids kept going to the school every day. In fact, as the parents are now painfully aware, they were not told anything at all until well after the school year was over, and the new school year about to start. What the hell is going on here?

Pollution Lawyers Team Recognized By Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

The Pollution Lawyers were recently recognized in two articles published by the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin for our work in pollution cases.  One article discusses the joining of our two firms to create The Pollution Lawyers name, our history, including our obtaining many millions of dollars for our clients since 2000, as well as remedies that were established ensuring a future free of pollution for our clients. To read the article, click here.  Two of our clients were interviewed for and quoted in the article.  Mary Bowles said, "I think they are marvelous... I just can't say enough or praise them highly enough."  The article is welcome recognition for our work.  The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin also wrote about nine of our cases.  The cases serve to demonstrate The Pollution Lawyers' success with pollution cases since 2000.  The cases were brought on behalf of families in the Chicago suburbs, areas in southern Illinois and in Indiana and Ohio.  The article chronicling our work can be found here.

NO COUNTRY FOR POOR PEOPLE: Polluter-Friendly Regulations Force Children in Chicago's Pilsen Community To Breathe Brain-Damaging Lead...For Years

Let me ask you something:  If the air breathed by children attending an American elementary school was contaminated by lead levels so high that it could damage their brains, and cause them life-long learning disabilities, how long would you say their parents should have to wait until that air was cleaned-up?  How long would you be willing to wait, if it was your child? A day?  A week? A month? How about 6 years? That's right, 6 years.  As the compelling stories written by the Chicago Tribune's Michael Hawthorne show, here's what's going on in the Pilsen community, a largely low-income, Latino neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.  This past April, federal, state and local government learned that the levels of lead measured at the local Perez Elementary School--attended daily by 500 children--was at or above federal limits during three month periods in 2010.......that lead levels exceeded federal health standards on fully 20% of the days measured.....and that, on one day, these levels measured more than TEN TIMES the federal limit [see these Chicago Tribune articles by Michael Hawthorne  dated June 15, 2011 and April 1, 2011].  And our government says that it knows where most of this lead is coming from--the smelter operated by a company known as "H.K. Kramer & Co.", less than 2 blocks away, whose annual sales are reported to be more than $10,000,000 [according to Cortera]. How bad is this level of lead for those elementary school kids?  Really bad.  For starters, there is no "safe" level of lead for kids to breathe.  Studies show that even tiny amounts of lead entering the body can damage the brains of young children, and trigger learning disabilities, aggression and criminal behavior later in life. So, given the staggering dangers posed to these kids by the lead in the air they are breathing at a school that they have no choice but to attend, you would think that our laws would be set up to protect them, and force a rapid clean-up.  But they are not.  In fact, they are set up to let polluters like H.K Kramer take their sweet time.  Under those polluter-friendly laws, Illinois environmental officials will have two years before they have to decide how much H.K. Kramer should reduce (not even fully clean up, mind you) this lead pollution.  These same officials will then have until 2017 - - 6 years from now - - to make sure that H.K. Kramer has reduced lead levels like it will have been told to do.  And if we get to 2017, and H.K. Kramer hasn't done what it has been told to do?  Then, the school children of Pilsen will just have to trust that the state officials who sauntered through the previous 6 years will suddenly treat their plight with urgency.  One might tell the Pilsen children to not hold their breath on this....but then, they are probably holding their breath right now....because they have to.  There's so much lead in the air. Recent news stories chronicle how so much of our country's wealth and economic power has become concentrated in the hands of a very few people and corporations.  The Pilsen story painfully demonstrates how that enormous power disparity plays out in the writing of our environmental laws.  The children of Pilsen did not have anyone speaking for them when the laws were written about how much time government officials and polluters would have to clean up pollution. Government and the polluters acted essentially as one in crafting laws that ensured that neither of them would have to move very fast, or spend very much money, on cleaning up the air in places like Pilsen. And evidently neither of them noticed how cruel it would be to take 6 years to clean up pollution that can ruin a child's life in 6 hours.

GET YOUR WELL WATER TESTED!

This is about the importance of getting your well water tested, immediately, when there is even the possibility that it is contaminated. North Stamford, Connecticut and Rockford, Illinois are half a country apart, and have many other things that would seem to distinguish them from one another.  But they have one thing profoundly in common:  both have a serious groundwater contamination problem, and need to quickly test families' drinking water wells to see how far the contamination has spread, where it is coming from, and how many of the families are threatened by it. North Stamford In 2009, testing of a fraction of the 5,000 private drinking water wells in the North Stamford area revealed that "elevated levels" of dangerous pesticides had infiltrated the water used by those families for cooking, bathing, etc.  [See this  Stamford Advocate article dated July 27, 2011]  While that's obviously very troubling news for those families, it's also very necessary news.  Because now they know.  Now they know that they have a serious problem, and can move quickly to protect themselves against this threat, and to demand a permanent solution.  For example, they can minimize their exposure to the contaminated water (especially for kids) through use of bottled water, or filtered water.  And they can demand that their government determine who or what is the source of this contamination, and make them pay for the clean, permanent water supply that those families now know that they need. But what about those thousands of families whose wells were not tested?  I would imagine that, like the many families I have represented in groundwater contamination cases over the years, these families have anguished over questions like: "What if my water is contaminated, too?"  "How will I feel about learning that I have been unknowingly exposing my family to this danger?"  "If my water is found to be contaminated, will it hurt the value of my home?" "Can I afford to pay for the water test, and for whatever may be necessary to protect my family if I turn out to have a problem?" As families have struggled with these painful questions, many wells have gone untested.  Either the cost of the water test ($350), or the fear of receiving a bad test result and having to deal daily with its consequences (lost market value, living on bottled water, etc.), is causing families to resist the testing upon which their very health and peace of mind may depend.  Most unfortunate - and dangerous. Concerned about all these un-tested wells, the North Stamford city council has recently decided to dedicate $100,000 a year to well testing in the community.  [See this May 26, 2011 Stamford Advocate article]   Good job.  With this action, the city council simultaneously emphasizes the importance of families knowing whether they have a problem, and takes away at least one excuse for not testing (i.e., the cost of the test).  Also, many hundreds of additional test results will give local scientists a fighting chance to determine the source of the contamination...because the more information these scientists have about what chemicals may be in the wells, and whether the concentrations of those chemicals increase or decrease in certain directions, the easier it is to identify the source. Plus:  home values which fall with the discovery of contamination in a neighborhood are never restored by pretending that there is no contamination.  They are restored by getting rid of the contamination, which is a process that starts with testing to show where the contamination is. But, what took North Stamford and its residents so long to do more testing?  This failure to test since 2009 has almost certainly left some families unnecessarily exposed to dangerous chemicals in their water, and means that the city and its residents have lost more than two years in their effort to figure out who/what is responsible for this contamination, and to make them pay for fixing the problem. Rockford Let's hope the Rockford contamination gets addressed more quickly and responsibly.  Rockford's contamination appears for the moment to be smaller, and newer, than North Stamford's.  In late July, 2011, after families in two homes smelled a strange odor in their water, testing showed that the water was indeed contaminated-- with a dangerous chemical known as "benzene".  Government officials quickly notified the residents of some 200 nearby homes that they, too, might have contaminated water, and that they should take precautions....like using bottled water, or filtering the water coming from their private well.  Early reports are promising:  government says that it will move quickly to test more homes, and one news story notes that a local resident is already using bottled water....even for the family dog. [See this August 2, 2011 Rockford Register Star article] A good start.  But all this means is that Rockford today is where North Stamford was in 2009.  Now what?  The bottom line is that Rockford must quickly test  more wells, in order to find out who's in harm's way, and who's responsible for this problem.  That's government's job.  But the 200 families have a job, too:  take this problem seriously, and hold government's feet to the fire.  Get the testing done. Now.  Then protect those who need protection.  And start holding accountable whoever did this. Otherwise, two years from now, 200 families in Rockford will still be wondering if they have a problem, when timely testing in 2011 would have given them the answer, possibly spared them further exposure to a dangerous chemical, and taken them well down the road toward a permanent solution to their problem.

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