Independent sample indicates PCBs remain in residence
hall called clean
By Eric Francis
| Return to Main Page
Woodstock Times, Vol. 23, No. 29; July 21, 1994
Cover of July 21, 1994 Woodstock Times with article by Eric Francis.
On February 1, 1992, only 35 days after electrical transformers
laden with toxic PCBs exploded and burned, sending poisonous
fumes through vacant dormitories and classrooms at the State
University campus at New Paltz, students were allowed to return
to their rooms in Gage Residence Hall. At that time, some parents
and students wanted further testing to ensure no danger lingered.
Their concerns were dismissed by college and county officials.
But it now appears there was good reason to fear for the safety
of the students.
A sample taken by Woodstock Times
from inside a Gage Hall ventilation duct near a kitchen in a
student lounge has revealed high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls,
the technical name for PCBs, chemicals known to cause cancer,
birth defects and genetic damage, and to impair the body's immune
and hormone systems.
This discovery has led Dr. Ward B. Stone
of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, who had
the sample analyzed under a state contract, to call for the closure
of the building until a comprehensive study determines the extent
of the contamination. Gage Hall is scheduled to re-open August
25, when students return to the campus.
A sample of wallpaper taken from the
same room as the vent also showed high PCB levels, as did a soil
sample taken outside Scudder Residence Hall, next to Gage.
Sampling was conducted with two witnesses
present, including a student who lived in the building, and the
process was videotaped. The samples were taken and analyzed without
the knowledge of state officials or contractors involved with
Neither county health nor SUNY-New Paltz
officials returned calls this week requesting comment on the
"It's not anything we would respond
to," said William Geary, a spokesman for Clean Harbors Inc.,
the state's lead environmental contractor in the clean-up of
the New Paltz PCB disaster. So far, the state has spent approximately
$36 million on a clean-up that is not yet complete.
Even though Clean Harbors was not willing
to discuss the situation this week, it may eventually have to
answer for its actions in court. Earlier this month, Woodstock
reported that Clean Harbors has been named by the state
in a $47 million lawsuit over alleged negligence on the PCB clean-up.
The action was the first time the state has acknowledged that
students not on campus at the time of the original incident might
have been harmed as the result of their subsequent exposure to
the toxic chemicals.
In the lawsuit that sparked the state's
effort to shift potential for blame to Clean Harbors, student
plaintiffs have charged that, "Clean-up activities were
not conducted in a good and workman-like manner and in accordance
with sound and appropriate environmental standards and principles."
As a result, "The plaintiffs and their possessions have
unduly been exposed to toxic substances."
The sample taken by Woodstock Times
from inside a vent in a basement lounge was given to Stone, who
sent it for analysis to an internationally-known laboratory in
Wisconsin. Stone, widely known as a whistle-blower on environmental
issues, said the test revealed "very high levels of PCBs"
in the vent. "This means that there needs to be additional
studies to see how contaminated it is," he said.
Stone said this week it is "certainly
a possibility" that the health of students in Gage Hall
was in jeopardy because of PCBs there. The danger would depend
on whether students breathed or otherwise came in contact with
the chemicals. "This means [the building] needs further
work," said Stone.
Stone believes the state has adequate
technical resources to do a complete study on Gage Hall in the
month prior to its scheduled re-opening. But he also suggests
it would be appropriate for all sampling to be observed by impartial
parties to ensure the samples are taken honestly.
If the tests come back with unacceptably
high levels of toxins, then Gage Hall might need to be shut for
some time in order to undergo an extensive clean-up similar to
the ones undertaken in Bliss and Scudder residence halls, two
other dormitories contaminated in the December 1991 incident.
Gage was originally scheduled for an extensive clean-up, but
at the last minute government officials reversed themselves and
opened the building with relatively little testing and clean-up.
Dr. Arnold Schecter, a leading expert
on PCB and dioxin contamination known for his studies on Agent
Orange victims, said of the New Paltz situation, "It would
be prudent to shut the building down and do the sampling."
The sampling done by Woodstock Times
the only independent samples taken since the New Paltz disaster,
indicates contamination could be widespread on the New Paltz
campus. A wallpaper sample taken from the same Gage Hall lounge
showed high levels of PCBs even though earlier tests on file
with the state show that the wallpaper tested "non-detect" for PCBs right before the lounge was opened to students. Another
sample indicates that soil directly outside dormitory windows
is contaminated with PCBs.
The samples indicated the presence of
two of the most toxic forms of PCBs, chlorine-based industrial
chemicals which were banned by Congress in 1976 due to the irreversible
health and environmental problems they cause. In New Paltz, the
chemicals were used as electrical insulation in transformers
which were part of the campus electrical system.
The federal EPA has compiled a new,
2,000-page report on PCBs and dioxins, a related compound, which
concludes that the chemicals are far more hazardous than previously
believed. Both PCBs and dioxins, the report says, are damaging
to human fetuses at levels far lower than previously suspected.
And it concludes that levels of the toxins already in the human
body are high enough to cause reproductive disorders in humans.
Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of the Environmental
Defense Fund, a leading expert on dioxin, warned state health
officials in a letter earlier this year that target levels used
to reopen a decontaminated dorm were "severely out of date" and needed to be reexamined. Thus, even if the buildings are
as clean as state officials claim, which now appears highly unlikely,
those levels may still be endangering the future health of students.
The discovery of high contamination
levels in a Gage Hall ventilation duct is critical because state
officials failed to test the air handling systems there and in
nearby Capen Residence Hall, which was also contaminated, prior
to allowing 560 residents back into the two buildings.
Just hours prior to the reopening of
Gage Hall on February 1, 1992, Lake Katrine resident George Farrell,
whose daughters attended the college, raised the vent issue at
a meeting attended by parents, students, health officials, representatives
of the clean-up contractors and the college administration.
Farrell's remarks concerning the possibility
that toxic contamination might still be lodged in air vents that
connect the floors of the dormitories raised a high level of
concern among parents, who became so agitated that college vice
president Barbara Geider threatened to end the meeting if they
did not settle down.
"They didn't want to hear about
vents," Farrell said in a recent interview.
At the meeting, Dean Palen, an official
of the Ulster County Health Department and now acting county
health commissioner, told Farrell that he believed the state's
efforts were adequate to ensure the safety of the building, but
he neither confirmed nor denied that the vents had been tested.
Farrell persisted on the ventilation
issue, and takes credit for having pressured Palen into testing
the vents in Bliss and Scudder halls, which were found to be
contaminated and were later cleaned or replaced at tremendous
expense and effort.
Vents in Parker Theater and the Coykendall
Science Building were also contaminated with PCBs and were cleaned
and replaced. Vent contamination is commonplace in PCB blazes,
and occurred in notorious PCB fires in Binghamton and San Francisco
in the early 1980s.
In order to deal with questions from
parents and students about the vent issue, college administrators
initially denied the existence of vents in the dormitories. But
state files included pre-clean-up records of contamination patterns
in the building, which indicated that Gage Hall bathrooms and
janitors' closets as high as the third floor were contaminated
with PCBs. Janitors' closets, bathrooms and lounges are all equipped
with ventilation ducts which are believed by state officials
to have spread the contamination through Bliss and Scudder halls.
Palen, the person responsible for giving
final authorization for re-opening contaminated buildings, offered
no coherent explanation when asked last August how contamination
had reached a janitors' closet on the third floor of Gage Hall
if it did not pass through the building's ventilation system:
"It may well - I mean -- I - I - I - this-this -- I don't
-- I don't - it - it may -- I - I don't really know. And-and
again, I don't know how significant that is. It was cleaned up.
That's the significant point from a health department perspective."
Farrell said that shortly after the
explosions and fires, Palen confided in him the suspicion that
the utility conduits in the dormitories were also pathways for
contamination. Yet while repeated tests of the electrical system
in Gage Hall showed evidence of contamination in utility conduits,
no testing or remediation was done to the building's 110-volt
electrical system in student areas. But extensive electrical
work was done in Bliss and Scudder halls.
State officials opened several campus
buildings under what became known in state jargon as a "Gage-type
scenario," in which contaminated portions of the building
were supposedly sealed off with plastic and plywood barriers,
and students were allowed to live and study in other parts of
the building. During winter and summer recesses, clean-up workers
would reenter the contaminated areas wearing moon suits and respirators,
and continue the testing and clean-up, activities which often
involved demolition work, excavation and reconstruction.
Last month workers entered Gage Hall
for further PCB clean-up more than 2-1/2 years after students
re-inhabited the building, the price of which was estimated by
state officials at $50,000.00. ++
Additional research on this
story was conducted by Jesse Welch, Christopher McGregor, Hilary
Lanner, Ian McGowan at Student Leader News Service. Thanks
to Carol van Strum, and to Keiko Ito in Tokyo for typing this