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By Eric Francis Coppolino | Return to Main Page
Chronogram, December, 2004

Illustration by Emil Alzamora.
ONE OF MY ongoing journalism projects in the Hudson Valley involves those contaminated buildings on the SUNY New Paltz campus where 1,000 students live. Their names are Bliss, Capen, Gage, and Scudder halls, and one morning in 1991 they were toasted with PCBs, dioxins, and furans during an electrical disaster. Because I've been covering this story for 13 years, I know something about denial; that is the only thing that could possibly keep so many students who know what is happening, or who have heard of the issue, living in a place where they are risking the effects of contamination.

Earlier this year, I came to New Paltz in denial of denial, with one thought: the truth shall set them free.

So one cold morning in early February, I snuck into Capen and Gage halls under cover of darkness, accompanied by the then-editors of the Oracle student newspaper, with seven sample jars and a tool kit. One should never take environmental samples alone, because witnesses are essential, and I was thinking strategically in choosing the Oracle's editors. The campus student newspaper has been extremely resistant to telling students about the PCB problem in their dorms during most of the past decade, so I thought: let's get them in on the story.

After reading my earlier, rather thorough articles, the editors agreed. So with the best possible witnesses, I entered two buildings and took samples from vents and heating ducts that my earlier research had established were either contaminated or extremely likely to be so.

It was fun sleuthing around these decrepit dorms like burglars, dismantling radiators to sample carpet-thick dust, opening up air vents and scraping off years of dryer lint, and taking a wipe sample of dust dripping from an electrical box right outside a student room. (I believe every yard of electrical conduit and wire in Capen and Gage carries PCBs into student rooms.)

I had written countless articles about these places, explored them many times, and devoted vast amounts of time, energy, and money to this story, but only once had the chance to take samples, back in 1993. So you have to imagine my sense of satisfaction knowing I would finally have some new hard science to back up my earlier work.

Later that morning, I sent the results to the lab and paid for the analysis with my check card, taking the $700 fee from my little publishing business that sells my horoscopes to the rest of the world. A week later, the results came back, and I was fairly well shocked. Every single sample was contaminated. And the Gage Hall vents were "hotter" than is allowed by federal regulations at a toxic-waste facility. I had either gotten very lucky in my choice of locations or the buildings were totally soaked with contamination.

In any event, there was clear evidence of a problem, particularly in light of the state's claim of absolute safety. It would be big news and, I thought, compel the state to do a thorough study of the buildings and attempt either to cover their asses and debunk my findings or, perhaps, act in the interest of students and establish the truth.

Meanwhile, the Oracle, whose editors were present for the sampling and very ably assisted in the fairly complex process, had one hot story on its hands; as a student editor, I would have drooled over such an opportunity to blow the lid off of that kind of horrendous scandal and protect my readers. I sent them the test results immediately.

But then a curious thing happened: the Oracle's editors blew me off. They literally called me to a meeting, after refusing to talk to me for a week, and said, "Don't call us, we'll call you. And by the way, we don't think you're a real journalist, and we don't think there's a problem."

By this time, decent articles had appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal and the Daily Freeman. And a whole series was unfolding on the pages of Chronogram. But the Oracle not only refused to print the results, they never once mentioned that samples were taken or that they had participated in the process. In actual fact, they were going to cover up the situation. Everyone knows that most students don't read off-campus newspapers (except for commuters, who by definition don't live in the dorms). The one way to get the message through to the affected populations was closed off.

Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that half of the Oracle's staff, including the editor-in-chief, lived in the contaminated buildings. As my then-landlady in Seattle, a rather enlightened medical doctor, said to me, "She has a good reason to be in denial."

At this point, the Oracle's editors could recite from memory the health effects of PCBs and dioxin, which include immune disruption, birth defects, cancer, and a wide variety of diseases of the endocrine (hormone) system. They knew that there is activity at the parts-per-billion level. Dozens of my articles, which they actually read, had established the long, sordid history of the incident.

They knew, they knew, they knew—and the students were not going to find out. Yet many of the students I did tell—by standing outside the dorms handing out copies of my articles—barely seemed to care. When I handed out leaflets at a same-sex marriage protest, I was chided by the protest's organizers for butting in where I didn't belong.

Oh, yeah, that, and Bush got re-selected. He either got the most votes or stole the most votes; he either has a whole lot of support or an enormous amount of support.

Based on the behavior of the student journalists, we can infer something of the conduct of "professional journalists" who are doing a fine job of burying the Bush administration's innumerable atrocities abroad and their rather impressive, glaring theft of the election at home. And thanks to all the non-journalism in the world, we don't know squat about what actually happened on September 11, 2001.

But thanks to what happened earlier this year with Capen and Gage halls, I can actually believe that such a scenario is possible. Scientists looking for the one thing that distinguishes human beings from all the other species of plants, animals, and rocks need look no further than denial. How convenient: one drug cures all.

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