Two years after toxic explosions rocked SUNY New Paltz, state officials claim the campus is clean. So why won't they do the tests to prove it?
By Eric Francis Coppolino
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, Aug. 26, 1993 [Albany, NY]
BLISS HALL ROOM 303 had been home to Amanda Shook of Hudson for two and a half years, starting her first day at SUNY New Paltz. When she left campus for winter vacation in December 1991, the last thing she expected was that a PCB transformer explosion would turn her dormitory into a toxic disaster area, or that her most personal possessions would end up in a hazardous-waste landfill just a few miles from Love Canal in Niagara Falls.
Family photos, some of her favorite clothing and her personal diary were among the items she'd left behind for the month-long break. "I had been writing in that diary since I was freshman, so all those memories were lost," Shook said last week.
Bliss Hall, which has been closed since that morning in December, is scheduled to reopen today (Thursday), despite the concerns of parents and students like Shook who fear New York state has not done an adequate cleanup job.
Shook, who graduated this past May, knows she was lucky -- as were 989 other students who lived in four residence halls where antiquated electrical transformers, insulated with toxic PCBs, were hit by a power surge and exploded at approximately 7:40 AM, Dec. 29, 1991.
She got out alive.
Just a few days earlier, all of those students would have been caught in thick smog of lethal PCB's, dibenzofurans and dioxins; instead, there wasn't a soul in the Bliss, Scudder or Gage residence halls. Seven drowsy students were evacuated from Capen Hall through a haze of sweet-smelling smoke characteristic of PCBs. Their clothes, jewelry and even their cash were taken from them in the freezing rain by men in "moon suits" (complete with air tanks), and they were driven to hospitals, where they were told to go home and shower. Fifteen emergency workers and college employees also were taken to the hospital.
Two firefighters who unwittingly walked into Gage Hall developed chloracne, a sign of possible systemic poisoning from PCBs, dioxins and dibenzofurans. Today the entire New Paltz fire department is being monitored for health problems, according to local officials.
Shook sometimes imagines horror stories about what would have happened had school been in session when disaster struck.
"It would have been grueling," she said. "There were people living in the basement right next to the elevator," which spread the toxins vertically throughout the dorm. "There would have been people killed from the explosion."
She's probably right -- the force of the blast blew an outside door off Bliss, shaking the earth and spreading plumes of black soot into the air outside the transformer room and back into residential areas.
Had the dormitories been occupied, nearly a thousand people would have been exposed to high levels of PCBs and the other super-toxins, dioxins and furans, created when PCBs burn. The known effects of such exposure: a broad spectrum of cancers from brain to breast, birth defects, hormone-system damage, immune-system suppression and probably genetic damage.
Had the fires and blasts occurred during the school day, thousands more would have been exposed to the chemicals, which are dangerous even in minute amounts. For example, dioxin fed to rats at a concentration of five parts per trillion causes cancer and other serious chronic illnesses. The most recent data on dioxin indicates that the hazardous dose for some health problems may be far lower than previously believed.
ULTIMATELY, how lucky can you call 8,000 students and 600 employees who have to learn and work at what could end up as a federal Superfund site?
Some levels of PCB, dioxin and dibenzofuran contamination was found in 15 campus buildings, though only six -- the four dormitories, a theater and a science building -- are getting any ongoing attention. Contamination in the other nine buildings was cleaned with Tide -- yes, Tide detergent -- and has been all but forgotten.
The highest level detected on campus was in Bliss Hall, which peaked at one million times the state's limits for PCBs. Peak levels of dioxins and dibenzofurans also turned up nearby.
And as administrators prepare to move 190 students back into Bliss, the last dormitory to be reopened, scores of questions about the state's purported cleanup are beginning to emerge. Many focus on one of the first buildings to be declared safe: Gage Hall, where 370 students were moved back in just 35 days after the explosions.
The implications are so serious that, at press time, attorneys representing students in class-action lawsuits were preparing to go to state court seeking an order to close Gage fro more testing.
There is general agreement among engineers, scientists and environmental attorneys that when a PCB transformer burns or explodes, the heating and ventilation systems are the first places that should be thoroughly checked for contamination. But Dean N. Palen, who is overseeing the cleanup for the Ulster County Health Department, said in March that no tests had been run on vents in the Capen or Gage residence halls. His stated reason: Surface wipe tests in rooms connected by the vent system showed no sign of contamination.
has reviewed state Department of Environmental Conservation documents that indicate a clear pattern of contamination in Gage Hall janitor's closets, bathrooms and laundry room, all of which are connected by the dorm's vents. Nearly identical ventilation systems in Bliss and Scudder residence halls were discovered to have spread toxins throughout bathrooms and cleaning closets in those buildings.
And a bathroom ventilation system was responsible for spreading toxins throughout the infamous Binghamton State Office Building, where a PCB transformer burned in 1981. The 13-year, $50 million Binghamton cleanup effort dwarfs the $25 million spent on six SUNY New Paltz buildings. Gage Hall was reopened after 35 days, whereas the Binghamton building remains closed after 13 years. But that cost is just for the first two years of the cleanup. Binghamton, at twice the price, has been going on for more than a decade.
"I don't see any evidence for any spread of contamination common to janitor's closets that would indicate anything that we would need to look into," Dr. John Hawley of the State Health Department told METROLAND
Lindo Signorelli, a SUNY official in Albany who is involved with the cleanup, said last week that he believed tests were run on the vents in Gage, though he was not able to provide data to back this up. And no vent test results have been found during extensive searches of state documents during the past 18 months. [Note, it was later confirmed by the governor's office that no tests had been run on the vents in Capen or Gage halls.]
Asked recently about his rationale for letting Capen and Gage halls reopen although no test had been run on the vents, Palen changed his story, saying, "Students, people, don't go in those vent areas."
Another question about the cleanup involves heating systems in all four dormitories. In spring 1992, engineers conducted simulation tests using smoke bombs in Bliss Hall. The result, according to an engineer involved in the project, was that some smoke followed heating pipes up into student rooms.
Yet by the time this test was run in Bliss, Capen and Gage halls had long been open, and cleanup plans had been finalized for Scudder. There is no mention of the heat system in the Capen, Gage and Scudder cleanup plans, though radiators in Bliss Hall were reportedly scrubbed down.
State officials who downplay the need for additional tests are almost certainly worried about future legal liability. More tests would require sending in the guys in the moon suits, and would document the state's doubts about its supposedly perfect cleanup. Environmental attorneys say this can create smoking gun evidence -- particularly if contamination is found.
They have reason for concern: neither the state nor the county health department conducted a formal risk assessment prior to opening the campus. All campus buildings can be reopened with so-called acceptable levels of PCB, dioxin and furan contamination, which assures some level of exposure and therefore some incidence of disease within the exposed population.
Last spring, students and recent graduates filed $47 million in class-action lawsuits against the State of New York and the state Dormitory Authority. They're represented by Richard Lippes, who won a $20 million settlement for the residents of the chemical-waste disaster at Love Canal.
IT'S BEEN 18 months since 175 fire fighters, police and hazardous-waste crews responded to the New Platz fires and explosions, which are believed to have been caused by a car colliding with a utility pole a mile from the campus. Three semesters and $25 million, the pall of disaster still lingers. Hardhat workers in full environmental suits are still a common sight. Ominous chain-link fences surround buildings where gallons of boiling PCB oil seeped into the ground, roadways and storm sewers.
Contamination, meanwhile, slowly spreads beneath at least four buildings, and has been detected in test monitoring wells beneath at least three. Students in Scudder live above a 12-foot-deep toxic waste pit, where contamination was left behind because further excavation might collapse the building's foundation. Often, county and state officials allow students to occupy one part of a building while men in moon suits work silently behind a plywood divider down the hall.
A year ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency hit the state college with $272,000 in fines for scores of PCB violations, including improper handling of toxic waste, failure to install safety devices on five transformers, and numerous counts of failing to keep PCB-related records. [The EPA complaint was settled for $159,750.]
When PCBs were banned in new equipment by Congress in 1976, the new law provided for both criminal and civil penalties. Civil charges are pending as a result of the lawsuit, and criminal charges for the disaster and it s aftermath aren't out of the question.
So it's not surprising that now, just days before the scheduled reopening of Bliss Hall, officials are passing the buck on who's responsible for opening these buildings. College officials have stated that the Ulster County Health Department is the lead regulatory health agency at the New Paltz site.
Ultimately, a campus building is reopened with the final approval of SUNY New Paltz President Alice Chandler, since Chandler has personal control over all campus facilities. Chandler cannot open a contaminated building, however, unless she has a recommendation to do so from the state's private environmental consultants, Clean Harbors Inc., and health officials. But she has the power to close a building at her discretion.
Hawley, who supervises the cleanup project from Albany for the state Department of Health, claimed: "They [county officials] write the letters, they make the decisions. They consult us every time and we discuss it, so we've been in agreement. But they definitely have the lead. They are the ones who make the decisions and that's the end of the story."
Yet Massood Ansari, the Ulster County health commissioner, stated in an August 4 interview: "What I've been told is the final arbiter of all this is the state Health Department. Finished."
It's New York state that owns the buildings, that is legally responsible for the disaster and -- despite the apparent conflict of interest -- responsible for certifying that its own buildings are clean, as well as paying for the cleanup and any liability damages that may occur. Therefore, they have good reason to keep things quiet.
GARY PINSKY was one of the 370 students moved back into Gage Hall in February 1992. If he trusted state officials at the time, today he has doubts strong enough to lead him to organize the Environmental Action Committee, an ad-hoc student group he says will launch an "informational assault" in the coming weeks and hopefully bring the issue to the forefront on campus.
"God only knows what's floating around in my body right now," says the 20-year-old acting major. "If I didn't do any studying on the subject this summer, I would have completely believed what the college and the state were telling me."
Three semesters after moving back across the hall from the Gage Hall transformer area, then working for a semester in the contaminated Parker Theater, Pinsky has learned a few things about PCBs. Recently, he says, he walked into Parker and detected the sickly sweet odor of PCB oil in a supposedly clean area.
He has also learned that tests on Gage recently discovered in state files show PCB levels up to 2,300 times the state's "safe" limit in or near the building six months after
he was moved back in. Air in the elevator shaft tested 32 times the limit for PCBs five months after students returned.
The fact that PCB transformers can explode, creating droves of class-1 carcinogens -- dioxins, dibenzofurans, chlorinated benzenes, polychlorinated quaterphenyls and others -- may have been news to the campus community. But it wasn't news to New York State officials, who by that time had shepherded the Binghamton State Official Building through its $50 million cleanup.
That such a disaster could occur was hardly news to PCB manufacturers like General Electric Co., either. A 1974 GE memorandum that is now evidence in various lawsuits talks about an explosive gas created by PCB insulating fluid when transformers fail, and reveals that "Westinghouse had a network transformer explosion recently, resulting in two fatalities."
One major PCB lawsuit in Nevada contends manufacturers Monsanto Co., GE and Westinghouse failed to warn anyone of the dangers. [See related article
"While it's our general practice not to comment on items in litigation, said GE spokesman Len Doviak of Schenectady earlier this year, "in this case [the Nevada suit] we feel that the allegations are totally without merit." Yet there is considerable evidence, including internal company memorandums and letters that date back as far as 1959, that manufacturers outright lied to the public, the government and their workers about the lethal nature of PCBs. Westinghouse documents suggest manufacturers knew about the health risks as early as 1936.
Forty years later, PCBs were banned in new equipment, but lax EPA rules allow many types of PCB transformers to remain in buildings "until the end of their useful lives." It's still shocking that the state university system owns more than 425 PCB transformers – including a number at SUNY at Albany – and that 15 remain in buildings on the New Paltz campus "like ticking time bombs," as Hudson Valley activist Peter Shipley warned years ago.
PINSKY SAYS that most students take the talk about PCB hazards with more than a grain of salt, and grow accustomed to men in moon suits outside their dorm windows.
"Something is wrong when people chose to live this way," he says. "But the problem in New Paltz is just a model of the environmental problems we're facing in the world now. In New Paltz, people go to class and ignore the astronauts on the campus. When you graduate, you ignore nuclear power, incinerators, and pesticides in your food."
Amanda Shook is concerned about future students as well.
"Just be careful," she urges those returning to the campus. Shook believes that Bliss Hall should never be reopened. "People who are going into Bliss Hall should know what has gone one," she says, "and they should have the choice of whether or not to stay."
Instead, they get a letter taped onto the door from the County Health Department, the assurance that some 50,000 tests have been run on the campus, and not a word about heat systems, vents or the fact that no one knows how toxic the dioxin that may be lingering in 500 dorm rooms really is.