Planet Waves Local Edition for New Paltz | September 2000


Above, special effects rendering of cleanup outisde Bliss Hall,
circa 1993. Photo: The Herald, New Paltz NY

Thoughts turned toward home

Planet Waves for August 2000
Local edition for Chronogram magazine in New Paltz, NY
Link for New Paltz students | Related Historical Story

by Eric Francis

It was midnight in the kitchen of the Camano Island, Washington youth hostel when the conversation turned to environmental issues. The woman across the table was a college professor on leave, a psychologist, and she was making the case that while things are very screwed up on the planet ecologically, and that while environmental issues are really important, humanity is ultimately meaningless in the cosmic scheme of things, and whatever we do here, "the universe will ultimately take care of itself."

Outrageous arguments like this make my blood boil. I did not say anything about it, but my thoughts were on a place I call home more than 3,000 miles away: New Paltz, New York, and the dread that I was feeling at having to write this very column.

This is a message for students at the State University campus in that town, our town, and the people who are full-time residents there and who no doubt know this story well. It's a message I've been repeating since 1992 -- for approximately a decade -- when the current class of college students was in elementary school. I'm not tired of writing about it, but exhausted from not knowing how to get through to people who are of a very different generation and perhaps possess very different values than I do. So I will be asking for your help.

Here's the short version of the story, for the benefit of as-yet uninformed students. This will raise more questions than answers, but I am working with space constraints (more information is on my web page, address below). During winter break in late 1991, an electrical accident occurred at SUNY New Paltz. There were, as a result, extremely toxic fires and explosions in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls, as well as in the Coykendall Science Building and the Parker Theatre. Supertoxins known as PCBs and dioxins spread into the ventilation systems, onto personal property, into walls and bathrooms and all throughout the structures. Toxins were also found in 15 other buildings, and had spread into topsoil, utility holes, drains, wells, and so far beneath the Earth that if it was removed, state documents say, the foundations of the buildings may have collapsed.

In more than 100 articles in local newspapers, Sierra magazine and the Village Voice, as well as in radio and television reports, I documented a coverup of the New Paltz contamination by the State of New York, finally digging back to 1937 into the files of the companies that manufactured the equipment that exploded and burned. These companies, and the state, were fully aware of how toxic PCBs and dioxins are, that the explosions were possible, and that results of their deception and negligence could be devastating.

These are a few of the basic facts:

o Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls were opened to students after the fires and explosions with contamination remaining in the buildings. Men in moonsuits would re-enter the buildings during vacations and proceed with the cleanup. Contaminated areas were left behind after the cleanup was declared complete. In Bliss and Scudder, students currently live a few feet from, upstairs from or directly next door to contaminated pits.

o Ventilation systems in Bliss, Scudder and Gage halls were contaminated with toxins, though the Gage vents were never tested until the state was forced to do so three years after the explosion and fire in that building. All were contaminated. The Capen vents were never tested for contamination. State officials had refused to test the Gage vents previously, and were only forced to after an investigation I conducted for Woodstock Times proved that there was contamination in the vents three years after the building had been reoccupied.

o The heat system in Bliss Hall was a known path of contamination, but the heat systems in Capen, Gage and Scudder halls were neither tested nor cleaned prior to moving students back into the building.

o "Low-level" contamination was left throughout all the buildings involved in the disaster. Re-entry levels (sometimes wrongly called "safe levels") of PCBs and dioxins used in the New Paltz cleanup were developed in the early 1980s. Since that time, vast knowledge has been amassed on PCBs and dioxins which indicate that there are no safe levels of these toxins. There are many sources of exposure in the world, and each dose adds to what is already there in the body.

o PCBs and dioxins attack the immune system, the reproductive system and the hormones. They are known carcinogens -- among the most severe -- but cancer is the last thing most people have to worry about. Exposure is known to be associated with endometriosis (a painful condition of the female reproductive system), the development of small penises in exposed boys, and what some scientists describe as "hormone chaos" in the body.

o Failures of the immune system and hormone (endocrine) systems are responsible for thousands of lifelong diseases. Dioxin induces cancer and other serious diseases at the infinitely low level of just five parts-per-trillion in the food of rats.

o The contamination does not just go away. It is impossible to remove all of the contamination from a building once it has been contaminated. As a result, each new group of residents is affected the same as if the explosions had happened yesterday.

o State officials, the faculty, the college administration and the local media are all fully aware of this. Any assertion of safety is false; no one can honestly say the structures are actually safe for students to live in.

I recognize that this information places residents of Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder, and students who go to classes in other buildings, in a tight spot. There is a need for more information, but mainly, there is a need for students to give themselves the benefit of the doubt and simply move out of these dormitories, immediately, and without getting trapped in the lame excuses, denials and lies of state officials.

State officials will point to thousands of tests that supposedly "prove" that the buildings are safe, but these tests do not address the fact that the re-entry levels are totally outdated, and the fact that there are numerous untested areas in the dormitories. So the only prudent thing is to get out. Students have given me every excuse for staying in these dorms, from "my father will be angry" to "you have to die of something" to "I will miss my friends." And, if you live there, you are surely free to remain. Indeed, your RD will say it's prudent to stay behind, and not listen to supposedly "alarmist" views such as this.

Students, at the very least have a right to know the story, as do their parents. I have passed on a great deal of information to the editors of The Oracle student newspaper. They are now fully apprised of the situation and I have provided full documentation.

I ask you for this help: please copy this article and give it to the New Paltz students and faculty you know. Students, please send it to your parents. Send them The Oracle as well. More next month.++

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