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PlanetWavesSuny quietly removes some PCBs from dorm officials called safe

By Eric Francis | Return to Main Page
Woodstock Times, Aug. 18, 1994

STATE ENVIRONMENTAL contractors conducted a partial and unannounced clean-up of toxic PCBs from the ventilation system of a dormitory at the State University at New Paltz last week. Right up to the time of the clean-up, officials claimed there was no evidence of contamination in the building. The partial clean-up was ordered after new tests confirmed the widespread presence of PCBs in the dormitory vents.

County and state health department officials say the dormitory is safe for students, who will arrive there next week. But the state wildlife pathologist who assisted in determining that the toxic chemicals are present in the dorm has repeated his concern this week that a potential threat persists in the building and that more testing and a thorough clean-up are required.

The building, Gage Hall, was originally contaminated with PCBs after an electrical transformer exploded there in December 1991. The dorm was cleaned and students were allowed to reoccupy their rooms about a month later.

Even in barely measurable doses, PCBs and related chemicals, called dioxins and furans, are linked to numerous forms of cancer, birth defects, immune system damage, genetic damage and permanent disruption of the hormone system.

Dean N. Palen, acting county health commissioner, ordered the latest round of tests and the partial clean-up after earlier, independent tests conducted by Woodstock Times showed contamination lodged in a vent above a stove in a student lounge. The vent, which lies behind a metal grate, carries air to the outside, but also connects to student shower rooms and other areas of the dorm.

In a letter dated August 11 and addressed to college president Alice Chandler, Palen said that Gage Hall may be reoccupied by 370 students next Thursday, August 25, and that the vent cleaning project will continue on the next student break, presumably winter vacation in December. According to Palen, the air vents have been cleaned "as far as could be reached" by the arms of clean-up workers. There is no indication as to whether PCBs remain in the vents, or if they do, in what concentrations.

"I hope this additional testing and cleaning will put to rest any concerns that may have been raised recently," wrote Palen, who has been in charge of the Woodstock '94 festival site and could not be reached for comment.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Health said this week that her agency, which still believes the dorm is safe, had not been informed of the tests or the clean-up in advance and had not approved of the action. But according to Palen's letter, "The test results are described in a report that has been prepared jointly with the New York Department of Health."

Dr. Ward Stone, the wildlife pathologist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation who assisted with the original independent testing of the vents, said of the situation, "There's certainly a potential danger there," and repeated his call for comprehensive testing of the entire building, not just the vents. Stone also repeated his call for dioxin and dibenzofuran testing, to see whether these extremely toxic by-products of PCB fires are present.

This week, Stone also attacked the previous tests used to certify the building clean in 1992 as "suspect data at this point because they missed the vents."

When Gage Hall was first reoccupied nearly three years ago, health officials failed to test the vents there, and in Capen Residence Hall, where another PCB fire occurred. But vent system contamination was discovered and cleaned in Bliss and Scudder halls, two other dormitories nearby.

According to Judy Hyatt of Hopewell Junction, whose 17-year old daughter; Lisa, was scheduled to move into Gage Hall next week, college officials told her there were no vents in the dormitory when she inquired about them last month.

Although Palen's letter to Chandler did not include the most recent PCB test results, the state Office of General Services, which has played a major role in the clean-up, said the county's tests showed that 33 of the 39 vents tested failed to meet the state's acceptable level of contamination for re-entry into the building, and three were so tainted they failed to meet federal standards, which are 10 times less stringent.

"They're in pretty poor shape if they said it was clean and they got 33 failures of state levels and three federal failures," Stone said.

No cost estimate of the latest testing and clean-up was available.

Stone was also critical of Palen's plan for a partial clean-up of the vents, because he said it will leave students in a contaminated building for a semester before anything is done about the problem. "They cleaned the vents down to arm's length. That seems ridiculous," Stone said.

Stone, who has considerable experience with PCB contamination, also questioned the accuracy of the testing method used in the county's recent tests, noting that they were done in a one-day turn-around time. "You don't get much accuracy in 24 hours," he said.

And he said officials were ignoring the issue of PCV contamination discovered in a sample of wallpaper from inside Gage Hall, also provided by Woodstock Times. "They better do some wipes on that painted wallpaper and see what's there, because if the vents are that widespread and they missed that, they might well have missed the stuff where [students] came in contact." According to state documents, the vents in Gage Hall are considerably more contaminated than the vents in Scudder Hall, where the vents were tested and cleaned during an eight month clean-up. For years, state officials have maintained that the Gage vents were neither tested nor cleaned because the contamination in Scudder Hall was originally believed to be more severe."

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