CHESTNUT RIDGE — County officials say they found what may be asbestos inside a now-sealed utility closet at the recently opened girls elementary school on the grounds of the former Edwin Gould property.
However, officials said the representatives for the property owner, Chestnut Ridge Venture, LLC, refused to let an inspector representing the Rockland Health Department sample the material for testing after it was found during a Feb. 2 inspection.
A spokesman for the school and the property owner's lawyer denied the material found posed a danger to students, faculty and administrators.
The asbestos inspector suggested the closet and nearby classroom be sealed, and said until the substance can be tested, the material should be presumed to be dangerous, according to a report by Mitchell Peligri of AM PH Environmental Inc.in Pomona.
"This material imposes an immediate health hazard which can result in death," County Executive Ed Day said Friday, reading from Peligri's report to the Health Department.
"We have friable asbestos there," Day added. "This is abhorrent and shocking that people in charge of children would allow this."
Damien LaVera, a school spokesman, said as a precaution, the closet and adjacent room have been sealed. He said air samples came back negative for asbestos, which only poses a danger if particles become airborne. He said the testing was done by EnviroTech Preservation Inc. and that the report would be given to the county next week.
LaVera said the girls at the school — ages 4 to 6 — never had access to the locked closet.
"Once again, county officials are making baseless allegations and issued a notice of violation before knowing any relevant facts," LaVera said. "The idea that any student was ever exposed to dangerous materials is outrageous."
“Our top priority is to provide a safe environment for the students in our care to learn and thrive," LaVera said.
Safety was a key debate at a Supreme Court hearing this week where village officials argued unsuccessfully that the school that opened on the expansive, 145-acre campus along Chestnut Ridge Road should be immediately shuttered. A total of 309 girls ages 4 to 6 attend Bais Yaakov Elementary School of Rockland County, which moved into the building in early December.
Village officials asked Justice Linda Christopher to close the school until the operators comply with village regulations, including submitting a site plan for the 19-building property, providing certifications for plumbing, electrical and construction work and allow inspections of the three or four buildings being used, including one that is proposed as a dormitory for a rabbinical school, Mayor Rosario "Sam" Presti said.
The judge ordered both sides to return to court in New City on March 1.
"I was disappointed the school remains open," Presti said. "As much as the judge is concerned about safety like we are, she basically allowed them to say 'Trust us, everything is OK'. With all due respect, I don't think that's the way it is."
Michael Castellucio, a member of Preserve Ramapo said Friday that he and other residents would prefer schools on the site rather than high-density housing. He said "parents have to demand that the asbestos on site is contained and safe, and the bridge coming in can sustain the weight of fire trucks if they are ever needed," referring to another issue raised by local officials.
"The idea of renovating older school buildings for current students certainly makes sense, but the decision not to follow the legal requirements set for everyone is not acceptable," Castelluccio said Friday. "And the bypassing of health and fire inspections should certainly have disturbed the parents of the children in the school."
The court battle could delay plans by a rabbinical school — Congregation Ohel Yaakov — from setting up a dormitory and classes on the grounds by March 1, attorney Richard Sarajian said. The school is losing its home on Yale Drive in Monsey.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Sarajian said. "The judge directed the owner and village to exchange information."
Day said if the rabbinical college moves into the building without permission, the county would issue violations and consider court action.
The Health Department had cited the owner for having beds inside two buildings on Jan. 12 and would not be willing to issue the school a required boarding house permit unless the village approved of the school, said Kate Johnson Southren, who heads the Rockland County Codes Initiative to crackdown violations.
Day said the county is ready to seek court orders to inspect the buildings at the former Edwin Gould property.
"The problem remains people act against the regulations and then seek permission when caught," Day said. "Some people think they don't have to follow the rules. We will not allow potential dangers to people, especially children."