"My View" op-ed by Eric F. Coppolino
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Times Herald-Record, Middletown, NY, Weds., Dec. 8, 1993
IN ITS COVERAGE of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo’s October visit to the SUNY-New Paltz campus, The Times Herald-Record told its readers that as the “self-proclaimed watchdog” of the college’s PCB situation, I got my “two cents in” with a question to the governor about the untested ventilation system in PCB-tainted Gage Residence Hall.
The question: How is it possible that the state never ran dioxin and PCB tests on the vents in the building, which was contaminated by a PCB transformer explosion and then reoccupied 35 days later? Given the $25 million (and still counting) cost of the PCB cleanup, the public deserves a closer look at this issue.
Gov. Cuomo’s office responded Oct. 27 with a letter essentially saying that the Gage vests were never checked because 1) They are exhaust vents and, theoretically, don’t blow into rooms; 2) They don’t connect with student dorm rooms – just the bathrooms, lounges, utility closets and laundry rooms.
Similar vents in Capen Residence Hall, where another PCB transformer burned, were never checked either.
Early in the PCB crisis, county and college officials dodged the vent question by insisting that there were no vents in any of the four contaminated dormitories. I, and other observers watching from the first days, knew it was an important question; we asked it, and we were steered in the wrong direction by state and county officials whom we believed were operating in good faith.
Months later, costly time-consuming ventilation system cleanup and replacement projects were discovered in tainted Scudder and Bliss residence halls -- buildings nearly identical to Gage and Capen halls with similar exhaust vent systems. This resurrected a very serious question: What about the vents in Gage and Capen?
It’s worth mentioning that in each of the four contaminated SUNY-New Paltz buildings where the air vents were, in fact, tested -- Bliss, Scudder, the Coykendall Science Building and Parker Theater -- contamination was, in fact, found, and the vents were either cleaned or replaced.
By no coincidence, air vents were also contaminated in PCB fires in Binghamton (1981), San Francisco (1983), Santa Fe (1985), and at Louisiana State University (1986). It’s a simple fact that smoke from fires contaminates air vents.
The only two PCB buildings where no air vent contamination was found were the only buildings where it wasn’t looked for.
I asked Dean Palen, Ulster County director of environmental sanitation, about the Capen and Gage vents in a March 1993 interview. He said they weren’t checked because the rooms interconnected by the vents were not found to have been contaminated after the fire. I thought Mr. Palen’s logic was troubling -- finding no contamination in a room doesn’t mean that it’s not contaminated deep inside the vent eventually leading to the room.
At least health officials should have checked to test their theory.
Oct. 27, 1993 letter from governor's office to Eric Francis
Putting people in potentially contaminated places is no small risk. Dioxins, which were found in Gage Hall, cause cancer in animals at concentrations of just five parts per trillion in food. [That is a fraction that looks like 5/1,000,000,000,000.] The chemicals also cause hormonal damage, immune system damage, cancer, birth defects and numerous other permanent illnesses at extremely low doses. In fact, no one knows just how low.
The vent question lingered for a while longer. Then came a major revelation: in August 1993, using the state Freedom of Information Law, I dug out sets of Gage and Capen contamination maps from state files. Contrary to what Palen had said in March, the maps drawn by Clean Harbors (SUNY’s PCB cleanup company) showed that immediately after the fires and explosions, there was, in reality, a clear pattern of contamination in many Gage and Capen rooms connected by the air vents -- bathrooms, janitor’s closets, laundry rooms, and other areas.
The same thing had been true in Bliss and Scudder, and those vents -- which were the same type as in Capen and Gage -- had been tested, and then cleaned or replaced.
Based on what Palen said in March, this suggested to me that the Capen and Gage vents needed to be checked for toxins. But Palen disagreed, saying in August that they don’t need to be checked because “Students, people, don’t go in those vent areas.”
But it’s not that simple. Discovery of these maps puts state and county officials in an awkward position. Proper testing and analysis is expensive. The building would need to be closed in order for ducts to be cut apart and properly checked deep inside the system. Even the mere testing of the vents could shake the credibility of the cleanup by revealing doubts about the thoroughness of the job.
Students and their parents have been told repeatedly that it’s perfectly safe to live in Capen and Gage halls. If it turns out otherwise, people who lived there based on the reassurances might sue. Other lingering questions might surface. The EPA, which just fined the college more than $230,000, might reappear on campus.
Imagine newspaper pictures of men wearing moon-suits testing long-occupied dormitories for deadly poisons, or worse yet, re-cleaning them. That wouldn’t help SUNY-New Paltz’s image or its falling enrollment.
So administrators and health officials could have many reasons to try and keep a low profile on the Capen and Gage air-vent issue, especially when you consider SUNY is already facing $47 million in lawsuits based on the accusation that campus buildings were opened prematurely and are still toxic.
If contamination is found in the Capen or Gage vents, county and state officials have a world of problems on their hands.
Yet, it’s far worse for the students who live there. The taxpayers will be left to foot the cost, but the victims, as usual, will pay the price.