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PlanetWavesCollege slapped with $158,750 fine for poor management of PCBs

By Eric F. Coppolino | Return to Main Page
Huguenot and Highland Herald, October 28, 1993

Staging area or "red zone" used to decontaminate students caught in Capen Residence Hall the morning of Dec. 29, 1991. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
SUNY-New Paltz must pay up to $158,000 in fines to the federal Environmental Protection Agency 'EPA) for violations of federal law caused the mishandling of PCBs before and during the ongoing PCB, dioxin and dibenzofuran cleanup on the campus.

In a final order issued October 6, the EPA ruled that the college mishandled liquid and solid PCB wastes, failed to install electrical protection on five PCB transformers, failed to clearly mark PCB areas and failed or refused to keep maintenance records for its PCB equipment. College officials disclosed the EPA order last week while giving testimony in an unrelated federal lawsuit.

SUNY-New Paltz officials did not return repeated calls to comment on the matter this week.

"If there's missing records, I've never seen them," said Lindo Signorelli, a SUNY-Central official overseeing the cleanup project from Albany. Signorelli said that the cost of the fine would be split two ways, between SUNY-New Paltz and Clean Harbors Inc., the Massachusetts-based environmental cleanup contractor which was responsible for some of the violations.

So far, Clean Harbors has been paid more than $7 million by SUNY to oversee the cleanup, which has cost upwards of $25 million in total.

"That's a significant fine, and I think it indicates the seriousness of the occurrence at the campus," said New Paltz major Tom Nyquist. "I would hope that all of the issues raised by the EPA have been properly addressed at the campus. And I would hope that all the questions that remain unanswered will also be fully addressed by the EPA."

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of highly toxic chemicals routinely used between 1929 and 1978 as an electrical insulator in industrial equipment. They were banned as an "imminent threat to human health and the environment," under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which forbid all PCB manufacturing in the US and ordered the EPA to implement a phase-out of many pieces of some existing PCB equipment.

Much equipment, however, was allowed to remain in use. As a result, a series of PCB fires and explosions contaminated numerous areas on the New Paltz campus December 29, 1991, including four residence halls, two academic buildings, outside areas, storm sewers and utility manholes. PCBs, which were originally used for their purported firs safety, were discovered to be explosive in the early 1970s. It was also discovered that they created super-toxic dioxins and dibenzofurans when they burn or blow up.

PCBs, dioxins and dibenzofurans cause a spectrum of illnesses, including immune system suppression, hormone system damage, cancer and other chronic diseases.

EPA officials came onto the campus in the aftermath of the 1991 fires and explosions, inspecting first in early January 1992 and then in April 1992. In June 1992, they initiated an "enforcement action," originally seeking 272,000 US Dollars in fines for more than 80 separate violations of federal PCB rules.

During its inspections, the EPA discovered that the college was storing PCB waste barrels directly on the ground when federal law requires them to be stored on a hard surface above the ground. The college also failed to mark its PCB waste storage areas and kept wastes on campus longer than the time allowed by federal regulations.

In addition, the EPA discovered that the college failed to provide "enhanced electrical protection" on five of its PCB units – those located in the administration building, the faculty tower, the heating plant, the student union building and the Sojourner Truth Library. Enhanced electrical protection was required on all PCB transformers in the wake of the 1985 PCB disaster in an office building in Binghamton, which cost 50 million US Dollars for a still incomplete 13-year cleanup.

The college also failed to officially inform the EPA of its waste handling activities for more than 90 days, according to the final order. At the outset of the crisis, the college failed on a number of occasions to contact the EPA about different spills and problems, including spills of contaminated water in Parker Theater and the Coykendall Science Building. Neither of those two incidents was included in the enforcement action, however.

During January 1992 inspection, EPA officials "determined that the (college) failed to maintain records or inspections and maintenance history" for 18 pieces of PCB equipment. Some 64 violations of this type were discovered by EPA officials.

Without the safety or maintenance records, there is no way to tell whether negligence by the college resulted in the December 1991 disaster.

Under the terms of the EPA order, called a "consent agreement and consent order," the college neither admits nor denies any wrongdoing. EPA officials said that this is because the college chose to settle its dispute with the EPA amicably rather than fight it out in court. However, all of the units that burned or exploded in New Paltz were of the kind that can still be used under federal law.

Seven PCB transformers were removed from the campus after the PCB disaster in 1991, and an additional six were already in the process of being changed over to non-PCB transformers at the time of the disaster.

If this plan is completed, the nit should eliminate all but one of the PCB transformers located on the campus – a massive, 1000 gallon unit owned by Central Hudson and located outdoors near Route 32 near the administration building parking lot. EPA rules do not requires removal of such outdoor equipment if it is far enough away from commercial buildings.

As for the additional 425 or so PCB transformers around the SUNY system, SUNY officials said this week that the process of removing them was now under way and expected to be completed within two years. This project will be done on a campus by campus basis, starting with SUNY Oswego and Oneonta, which together have nearly one-quarter of all the PCB units in the SUNY system. E.F.C

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