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Year off to smooth start at PS 65 in Ozone Park

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The school year has been without incident so far at PS 65 in Ozone Park, the elementary school where parents contend their children are getting sick because of a contaminated groundwater source that has impaired the air quality.

School and health officials told parents last spring the contaminated groundwater did not pose a danger because it was buried 35 feet beneath the school. But even after the city Education Department decided to reopen the school this fall, many parents still had reservations about the school’s safety.

“I have no other choice but to be satisfied with what [officials] say,” said Fran Kelly, a senior citizen and parent of three PS 65 children as she stood outside outside the school Monday. “They claimed the school would be cleaned up by October, so we have to wait and see.”

Jose Beltre, the parent of two children at PS 65, said he is afraid of a repeat of last year’s events.

“I’m not 100 percent satisfied with the school,” he said. “You still feel like something could happen.”

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein decided to reopen PS 65 on schedule Sept. 5 after receiving assurances from the state and city Health departments that the air in the school at 103-22 99th St. was safe.

David Klasfeld, deputy chancellor of operations for the Department of Education, had told a parents meeting at PS 65 earlier this month that highly sophisticated tests had “shown the air in the school to be normal.”

Some parents waiting outside the school were optimistic the building would be safe for their children.

Pamela Bechan, who attended several meetings for parents with representatives of city agencies, said the data officials presented “sounded positive.”

“I feel OK unless I’ve heard something,” said Bechan, a mother of two students. “We’re going to give it a try.”

Parents initially became concerned in May when media reports claimed the school had abnormally high levels of carbon dioxide. The city Department of Environmental Conservation then revealed the school was built on contaminated groundwater, which parents feared was causing schoolchildren to suffer from dizziness, headaches, sore throats and rashes.

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said one of the groundwater contaminants, the cancer-causing chemical trichloroethylene, or TCE, was tested in June at 580 times the accepted safe levels.

Tests also found elevated levels of TCE in soil vapors surrounding the school, Constantakes said. The school has already brought down carbon dioxide levels by changing classroom ventilation patterns.

PS 65, formerly PS 60/62, was built on a closed industrial facility owned by Boges Manufacturing Co. It is also one block from the former site of Ozone Industries’ chemical storage area, which the DEC labeled a Class 2 site, meaning it posed a significant threat to public health and required action.

Constantakes said the DEC installed 12 on-site, permanent monitoring wells in August, which will give investigators a better idea of the groundwater flows and more accurate figures for contamination levels. He said the DEC is negotiating with Ozone Industries to pay for any future cleanup costs.

The United Federation of Teachers had threatened to boycott the opening of the school. But teachers met last week with UFT President Randi Weingarten, who urged them to report to school and notify union officials of any illnesses or symptoms associated with the contaminants, UFT spokesman Ron Davis said.

“We’ve been assured by state and city officials that there will be ongoing tests,” Davis said. “And so far this year, we’re unaware of any teachers complaining of illnesses.”

After news reports circulated in May about the carbon dioxide levels and contaminated groundwater, many parents said their children were suffering from rashes, dizziness, heachaches and sore throats and attributed the illnesses to environmental conditions at the school.

But Department of Education officials said an analysis of school records showed that children at PS 65 last year were not experiencing more health problems than children at other area schools and attendance at the Ozone Park school was normal.

Reach reporter Alex Davidson by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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