In the aftermath of
a carbon monoxide leak that sent nearly 80 students at East Elmhursts P.S. 127 to
the hospital last week, hearings probing delays in the removal of coal-burning boilers in
public schools have revealed that programs to replace the antiquated systems were hampered
by severe infighting between government agencies.
The hearings revealed that funds
set aside 14 months ago have yet to be used on a single boiler extraction, and that
currently there are no funds to extract the additional 185 coal boilers throughout the
citys school system. The battle to bring 20th century technology into the public
schools will extend well into the 21st century.
P.S 127 in East Elmhurst, where carbon
monoxide from a coal-burning boiler sent nearly 80 students to the hospital.
Tribune Photo by Gary McLendon
"At this point in time, coal in the schools in
New York City is almost an obscenity," said Assemblyman Steven Sanders, chairman of
the Assembly Committee on Education.
Under oath, officials from the New York Power Authority (NYPA), the
School Construction Authority (SCA) and the New York City Board of Education testified
before a State Legislative subcommittee Feb. 8. Again before the City Council, Feb. 9, it
emerged that the agencies disagreed on how to prioritize $125 million in state Clean
Water/Clean Air Bond Act funds.
The Bond Act was approved by state voters in November 1996 to
finance the removal of up to 100 coal boilers in New York Citys public schools.
During the state Legislative hearing, Daniel Berical, vice president
for policy and governmental affairs of NYPA, said the Bond Act gave the Power Authority
authorization to extract the boilers. However, Berical revealed that during 1997 impasses
between the Power Authority and the School Construction Authority resulted in the
withholding of construction permits by the SCA, and jurisdictional conflicts, duplication
of priorities, and the lack of effective oversight by the Board of Education.
Berical testified that the decision to withhold the permits was a
SCA decision, and not made by NYPA or the Board of Education. In December, after a
13-month delay, an agreement in the form of a memorandum of understanding was consummated
between the three agencies.
"I dont think that anything could have been done to speed
up the process," SCA President and Chief Executive Officer Milo Riverso said.
"I would echo what has been said earlier ... I feel very, very
comfortable that we are moving forward in a progressive fashion," testified Board of
Education Chief Executive for School Facilities Patricia Zedalis.
Berical testified that the Bond Act gave the Power Authority the
goahead to implement boiler conversions, and the Power Authority chose to utilize
the SCA because, "their experience in coal boiler conversions made them the best
oversight entity for coal boiler extractions."
Coal-burning boilers can consume tons of coal per month.
In Queens, 75 public school have coal burning furnaces.
Tribune Photo by Dee Richard
He said that the inability to work out the disputes between
the agencies has delayed work on 18 schools. Progress on the 18 schools stopped at the
architectural design stage in December.
"After the 18 Bond Act schools were announced last
spring, the conflict over the lack of an memorandum of understanding began," Zedalis
In addition to the conflict over Bond Act funds, state
Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Richard Brodsky discovered that the
Board of Education has yet to solidify plans for obtaining or implementing additional
funds needed to complete coal conversions in all city schools.
"You have $125 million of state money coming in that
you borrowed to get. You then figure out that you have a need for $400 million to fix all
coal-heating boilers in the city ...
Some private entity will hand you a check for $275 million
and the actual work will be done through the Power Authority and the SCA ... [But] who
pays off the $275 million?" Brodsky asked.
Riverso testified that the delays were due more to the
SCAs practice of tying boiler conversions into wider projects, such as roof, window
and heating system repairs, which slowed the conversion process.
State Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry of Corona said that he
found the argument without merit.
"The argument that they could not replace the boiler
because they needed to complete the entire system seems implausible," he said.
Aubry, a member of the Assembly subcommittee, took
particular interest in the issue because he has two children in P.S. 127, the site of last
weeks carbon monoxide leak.
"I was never satisfied that it was simply human error.
There was significant damage to the rear door integrity of the boiler. There were similar
cracks on a boiler in use," Aubry said. The hearings revealed that the Board of
Education gave the boiler at P.S. 127 a rating of three on a scale of one to five.
The Power Authority said they have never visited P.S. 127,
and the SCA said, the boiler was last inspected in February 1997. "It was not
classified as a priority, and would have been normally looked at within the next 18 months
or two years," Riverso said.
The accident, a result of backed up carbon monoxide which
invaded classrooms, was caused by a door left open on an operating boiler by a replacement
attendant. Responsibility for what happened in P.S. 127 lies within the school.
"What happened at P.S. 127, was an inexperienced
worker - the fireman was off that day - not properly supervised, and it is completely
unacceptable," Zedalis said. "The building manager is responsible and should
have made sure that person replacing the fireman should have been adequately
During the Feb. 8 hearing Zedalis announced plans to
provide carbon monoxide detectors in all public school boiler rooms. In addition, City
Council Speaker Peter Vallone announced the donation of 279 carbon monoxide detectors by
Aim Safety of Austin, Texas. The detectors will be placed in all public schools with coal
For parents of students at P.S. 127, the action falls far
short of what they want.
"We want our boilers replaced and replaced
immediately. We want to be pushed to the head of the list," said Noila S. Johnson,
second vice-president of the P.S. 127 Parents Association. Prior to last weeks
incident, P.S. 127 was not included on any conversion list. Now, according to Johnson, who
said she met privately with P.S. 127 interim Principal Douglas Delmonte, Oct. 15 has been
set to begin removal of the boilers at P.S. 127.
The P.S. 127 incident brought the boiler conversion issue
to the forefront. And testimony during the two hearings revealed that like many other
issues, the Board of Education, the SCA and the NYPA could not agree on which coal boilers
to remove, and when.
Berical said that, within the NYPA, the schools judged to
be in the greatest need were not necessarily the schools recommended during the first
round of allocating Bond Act money. Vallone, during the Dec. 9 hearing, said there was a
serious problem with the selection process and questioned Lewis H. Spence, the Board of
Educations deputy chancellor for operations, whether the Board of Education would
have identified the same 18 schools the Power Authority had for boiler replacement.
"No. These schools do not match our priorities of
schools that need boiler replacement. Only half of the schools meet our criteria,"
"How is it possible that the Power Authority is
working off a different list than the one the SCA issued last year? Why are our children
caught in a political bureaucracy that is jeopardizing their health and safety?"
Aubry called the boiler selection process, "a
geo-political decision," and concluded, "Merit was thrown out the window at some
Based on the Bond Act agreement, the alreadyscheduled
boiler conversions will be completed during the summer of 1998, in time for the next
heating season. During the hearings it was estimated that it could take up to six years
before all the citys public schools were converted from coal to oil or natural gas.