Planet Waves | I Was There | By Eric Francis



I Was There
Former New Paltz student
warns of PCB dangers

Please share this link with your friends at SUNY
or anyone in New York

By Eric Francis
Planet Waves Digital Media. Written for
The Oracle student newspaper

If you live in Bliss, Capen, Gage or Scudder hall, you live in a famous place. If you go to school in the Coykendall Science Building or the Parker Theater, you attend school in a world-renowned building. People in dozens of countries and across America have at least heard of the New Paltz campus. Government officials have stayed up nights wondering what to do in the midst of major crisis, fearing for their careers, strategizing and spending hour and after exhausting hour dealing with the press. Yet they seem like normal, well-kept buildings; how is this possible?

In the not-so-distant past, on a Sunday morning in late 1991, a car skidded into a utility pole two miles from the SUNY-New Paltz campus. The power lines crossed, and bad (out-of-phase) electric current ran through the campus system. Electrical equipment that had been sitting quietly in buildings for thirty years began to get hot, and then to burn, and then explode. The equipment was filled with a chemical called PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls -- which is a highly toxic, sickly-sweet-smelling oil used to keep the equipment cool and, in theory, to prevent fires. Smoke poured out, filling corridors, classrooms and dorm rooms. Scalding hot poisonous oil leaked through floors and into the ground, and a haze hung over the campus that whole foggy, rainy winter day.

Manufacturing of PCBs was finally outlawed throughout the United States in 1976 because the chemicals were proven to be disastrous, 40 years after it began. But the chemical has a way of sticking around. It happened to have been left behind in New Paltz s late as 1991 because it was considered too expensive to remove.

In the space of about one hour, SUNY New Paltz was transformed from a quiet campus, closed for winter vacation, to a scene of tragic chaos resembling news images of Bosnia, or the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Russia. Students had their clothes and jewelry taken away from them in the freezing cold air. Ambulances shuttled students and firefighters local hospitals. Men dressed in huge white suits, breathing bottled air through respirators, roamed the campus trying to figure out what had happened, and taking contamination samples off of floors and walls. Hundreds of firemen, police, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and hazardous materials crews from IBM and Ulster County responded to the scene. The entire campus was closed for weeks as companies with names like Clean Harbors and Action Cleaners began to deal with the huge mess under emergency contracts, and government officials telephoned hundreds of parents and students. Early estimates were that the cleanup would cost about $500,000. The actual price was about $50 million, though that price only covers damage to things, not to people.

Student property in half of Bliss Hall was put in a toxic waste dump. Cleanup involved digging deep beneath Bliss, Parker and Scudder halls in an attempt to remove contamination deep beneath the foundation. Inside sealed rooms in Bliss and Scudder, excavation scenes are still off-limits. Digging beneath Scudder had to be halted because of fears that the foundation might collapse, state documents revealed.

Why the big deal? These chemicals are not ordinary cancer-causers; they work at barely-measurable levels (parts-per-million or far less), but on the way, they mess up the immune system, the hormone system and damage the genetic code, causing a slow breakdown of important body functions. They cause numerous birth defects in children born to exposure victims. Not everyone gets sick, and for those who do, it can take from one year to a few decades.

Despite this, just thirty-three days after the disaster, Capen Hall was re-opened to students. Two days later, Gage Hall was re-opened. Bliss and Scudder residents were housed off-campus for a few semesters. The decision to re-open Gage while it was still known to be contaminated was made at the last minute, according to students and parents who were in contact with the college administration during those terrifying days. We watched as students, not informed of many important details of the disaster, were moved back into buildings that had not been properly tested for contamination. We watched in shock and horror as their parents left them there, not bothering to ask questions from administrators who were reassuring them the campus and their homes were perfectly safe. I did not know which was more mortifying -- the contamination, or the fact that students and parents did not care. If they had cared, then those buildings would probably be closed today.

At the time, I was living in New Paltz, running a news service that provided articles for all the campuses in the SUNY and CUNY system called the Student Leader News Service. Student Leader was an off-campus organization, independent of any influence from government officials. My small staff and I began to unravel the story. We were warned that it would be very hard and could take months to close down buildings where there were obvious problems. It was frightening, scary work. People screamed at us, and accused us of being 'agitators' who just wanted to close down the campus because we held a grudge of some kind. I was arrested for covering an emergency Faculty Senate meeting where PCBs were discussed, and where all the other press was allowed in -- after I was taken out by the police. If, at that time, I had been told that nine years later I would be writing this article for The Oracle to warn students that a serious problem still existed, I would not have believed it, or I would have been too depressed to go on. (So I don't blame you for thinking this is all too wild to be possible, or that it can't possibly matter now.)

Student Leader began putting together full coverage of the event and getting it out across the state, and into the hands of the major media. Dioxin had been found on the campus, an extremely toxic chemical that is created when PCBs burn (those of you with parents who were in the Vietnam War have probably heard of dioxin). Articles appeared on page one of The New York Times, in the Associated Press, in all the local newspapers and TV stations. This went on for weeks and weeks. But long after the press lost interest and the campus was "back to normal," I and a few friends continued the investigation. It became my full time job as friends bought me dinner night after night, fixed my car and paid my rent. In the course of writing about 150 articles, this is some of what I have documened:

<> Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls were re-opened with contamination remaining in the buildings, as was Parker Theater. Men in moonsuits would re-enter the contaminated dormitories during vacations and proceed with the cleanup. Contaminated areas were left behind after the cleanup was declared complete. There are still "dead rooms" in some buildings. In Bliss and Scudder, students currently live a few feet from, upstairs from, or directly next door to contaminated pits.

<> 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.

<> 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.

<> "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.

<> 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.

<> 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. Dioxin was found in Bliss, Gage, Scudder and Coykendall Science Building. Capen Hall was subjected to just one dioxin test, so it was not found there.

<> 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.

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

RDs, RAs, Student Affairs and other state officials will assure you that these places are perfectly safe, and tell you that thousands of tests were taken, including in your room. But those tests are meaningless because the only safe level is no level -- anywhere in a building -- and besides, the heat and vents were never checked in critical areas. Much more detailed information will appear in articles in The Oracle.

You would think that the students who came before you would have cared. We know that government officials are more concerned about their paychecks than they are about anything else, so you can't count on them to tell the truth, especially if they know students have been hurt by their actions. For sure, this is a complicated issue, and it requires guts and commitment, and caring about your own life more than young people are believed to care. Back when this happened, activism was not cool. People were afraid to admit they gave a damn about anything, and as a result, these buildings are still open today. But now it's 2000. Activists -- many of them students -- shut down Seattle and Washington protesting the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. They sent a message to the world that young people have a voice, and that they really care. You can too.++
Much more information about the New Paltz disaster is on Eric's web page at Eric a professional writer and is a graduate of SUNY Buffalo. He was a Graduate Student at New Paltz when the PCB explosions happened. He now lives in Seattle. You can e-mail him at

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