Who will tell students about the Dioxin Dorms?
The end is written in the beginning.
-- Tao Te Ching
Twenty years ago this month, the Hudson Valley experienced one of its most terrifying days ever: the chain-reaction explosions of PCB transformers that contaminated the SUNY New Paltz campus on Dec. 29, 1991. On that day, four dormitories, a theater and a science building were contaminated by some of the most extreme toxins known to science. Today, 1,300 students still live in those dorms, which are as contaminated as they were the days they were re-opened.
Cleanup crews with independent air supply (level B protection) working outside Bliss Hall in January 1992. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
Recently I was digging around my old document collection from that story. Among the piles of scientific studies and stacks of notebooks was the recording of a campus news conference from Dec. 31, 1991, the second day after seven transformers exploded and campus buildings were contaminated with PCBs and dioxins. On that day, guys dressed like astronauts were spread out over the campus, filling waste drums in the first days of a long, expensive and controversial cleanup.
The toxins released in the incident are the chemical equivalents of plutonium, measured in concentrations as low as parts-per-trillion. Exposure is associated with immune system damage, hormone disruption, reproductive issues, birth defects and cancer. Ingesting even trace levels can cause lifelong health problems. Of particular concern were four dormitories: Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls, what I now call the Dioxin Dorms.
In that news conference, Alice Chandler, then president of the college, took the podium and said that health officials and their contractors were especially concerned about "channels which may have served as conduits for smoke."
That may have been the last honest assessment she offered the community before the rationalization, posturing and denials set in. Though I didn't remember her statement till I heard the tape, I spent many years investigating contamination in the heating and ventilation systems, pipe chases and the electrical systems in the four dorms. Though the state and its spokespeople would issue many denials of these specific problems, Chandler had admitted the single most serious issue right up front -- then she put students back into the dorms without any investigation or cleanup of the "channels which may have served as conduits for smoke."
In Bliss Residence Hall at SUNY New Paltz, a Westinghouse electrical transformer containing 100 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) insulation fluid exploded and blew out the louvers and the back door. This was the most serious of the seven transformers that malfunctioned, creating dioxins and a massive PCB release that was forced into every crack in the building.Students were moved back in after a minimal cleanup. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
Nothing much has changed since the day the building opened. Residual PCBs and dioxins do not go away. Indeed, they have a way of being extremely persistent.
The state opened the buildings on the theory that a little poison is okay, but that theory is negated by two decades of new studies that demonstrate how little of these toxins can make a person sick. During the 20 years I've been covering this, I've heard state officials say many outrageous things. I've seen them ignore the wise counsel of people who have been deeply concerned for the safety of students, 30,000 of whom have lived in the four dorms since they were re-opened -- more people than can fit in Madison Square Garden.
But the most harrowing thing I've seen is countless students and parents who ignore the warnings, and move into the building with stubborn determination that everything is okay. Graduates of SUNY New Paltz are indeed getting sick. I hear from some almost every year. The most recent involved a group of students who had lived in Scudder Hall and who later developed brain cancer. The mother of one recently wrote to me to let me know her son Lee had died. However, cause and effect are difficult to prove. State officials have long planned this as their defense.
Many state agencies were involved in the cleanup, and as a result, the cover-up. Foremost among them was the New York State Department of Health. In a 2007 Chronogram
interview, Ed Horn, a toxins specialist for the department, told me: "Nobody wants to hear that there's no way to say it's safe." My mission was to ask him about the "conduits for smoke" that I believed still contained contamination, and get his justification for leaving students in the buildings.
Horn said it was "a very reasonable hypothesis" that smoke followed the pipe chases in all four dormitories, though he was opposed to testing the radiators or vents for contamination. Horn, like many state officials, reasoned that students are safe as long as they don't go inside the vents, take apart radiators or go behind walls where toxins are lurking.
Constantine Yapijakis, a professor of environmental engineering at Cooper Union, explained in one of my articles, "As long as there's a passage way, contaminants will be moving. All kinds of cracks and openings will allow movements of contaminants. Smoke is very volatile and very easy to go through small openings."
Pipe chases, or the spaces through which plumbing is routed, in Gage Hall's basement. Pipe chases, which are essentially gaps in the construction of a building, are now acknowledged by the New York State Department of Health as a route for toxins in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls. Photo dated May 2007 by Eric Francis.
Eric Janssen, a former congressional aide who co-wrote the 1976 federal law banning PCBs, once explained: "There's a million and one ways to get exposed. It all attaches to dust. You can track it around. You just don't want this stuff in the same building, particularly with students who are going to have children."
The vents in the dorms have long been a subject of controversy. State officials denied that the buildings even had vents (and from what I hear, they still do). One day I discovered not only that the vents existed, but also data showing that rooms that had vents had elevated levels of contamination. Presumably, the vents moved those toxins into those rooms.
I called up Dean Palen, then the head of the Ulster County Health Department, who was directly involved in the cleanup. Palen had signed letters for each of the re-opened buildings certifying that they were safe. He dismissed my concerns about toxicity in the vents, saying: "Students, people, don't go in those vent areas."
I asked him how toxins had concentrated in the rooms that had vents, and he replied: "It may well - I mean -- I - I - I - this-this -- I don't -- I don't - it - it may -- I - I don't really know. And-and again, I don't know how significant that is. It was cleaned up. That's the significant point from a health department perspective."
Actually, it had not been cleaned up; he had never even tested the vents. Soon after, my reporting for Woodstock Times
forced him to go back into Gage Hall and actually test the vents he had long insisted were clean. That experiment proved that every
vent was contaminated. Palen finally ordered a cleanup into the vents, but only "as far as the arm could reach," which is another way of saying no cleanup at all.
Sand barrier across roadway is created in an attempt to block the spread of contaminated water downhill to other parts of the campus. About three days later, the identical thing happened in the extremely contaminated Coykendall Science Building, where crews again neglected to cut the supply of water. Photo by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
Ward Stone, then the state's wildlife toxicologist, had helped me conduct the independent tests of the Gage Hall vents that forced the Health Department to do more thorough research and minimal cleaning. When the Health Department's official results came back, Stone said: "They're in pretty poor shape if they said it was clean and they got 33 failures of state levels and three federal failures." It should come as no surprise why they don't want to test the heat or vents in any of the buildings. They know what they're going to find, if they do.
Lois Gibbs, who in the 1970s had organized the citizen effort to evacuate the infamous Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY, helped me with many of my articles. She once said, "The whole thing is just outrageous -- to mislead people and to lie to them and to have total disregard for the health and safety of the students there. Time and time again, they've said, there's no cause for alarm, no cause for alarm -- until it was thrown up in their face and they could no longer deny it." She added, "It is a direct manipulation by the state health department to achieve a goal that they have, and that goal is to open the dorm rooms."
That goal has resulted in many people getting sick -- but the state has no epidemiological data to confirm that fact. The health of the students in the buildings is not studied. Why would it be? That would give people ammunition to show that there's a problem.
Dr. Peter Haughton was the New Paltz campus physician at the time of the PCB disaster. This was his reaction during the first news conference held the day after the explosions and fires, Dec. 30, 1992. He later joined the chorus of voices reassuring students, parents and faculty of the safety of the campus and buildings. Nine years later, this photo says it all.
Jennifer Folster, who was in the first group of students to be moved into the dorms, died of leukemia in late 2000. When I spoke to her in December 200, she remembered that in the spring 1992 semester, she was living two doors down from a sealed room marked with a biohazard warning on the door.
At the end of that academic year, she was hospitalized for mononucleosis infecting her liver and spleen. She said that her roommate was also frequently sick that year as well, and later had a miscarriage.
In the spring of 1999, Folster began to get ill again, and by July was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia. Genetic testing determined that she had the M2 variety, which Folster was told by her doctors, is caused by a genetic predisposition that can be set into motion by exposure to environmental toxins.
In a Chronogram
interview weeks before she died, Folster appealed to students living in the toxic dormitories to "get out and insist that they are cleaned. Ultimately it's your choice."
Compared to experiencing immune system collapse, hormone disease like endometriosis or cancer, moving dorms or delaying school one semester is not so inconvenient. Yet I've seen very few students or parents express concern to the point of actually doing something. I can count on my fingers those I know for sure have moved to a new building.
When a student is on their way into the dorms as a healthy person, it's easier to accept the assurances of someone like Eric Gullickson, a longtime college spokesman, who will tell you: "The college, along with the New York State Department of Health and the Ulster County Health Department, is confident that our residence halls are safe."
The pattern is that once a student gets sick, they want other students to be warned, but when you're recovering from brain surgery, or getting chemo and radiation treatment, you don't usually have the time or strength to be an activist.
Bliss Residence Hall at SUNY New Paltz, scene of one of the worst indoor PCB disasters in New York State history. Students' property in half the building was deposited into a toxic waste dump; the other half was returned without being tested or cleaned. Bliss Hall was re-opened to students about 18 months after the explosion. Photo dated 1992 by Eric Francis for Student Leader News Service.
Not just the denial but also the ignorance of state officials has never failed to astound me. A few years ago, Dr. Peter Haughton, who was the campus physician at the time of the original incident, said that PCBs were not that harmful because they are used in cooking oil.
Haughton was mistakenly referring to the Yusho incident, where PCBs and dioxins contaminated rice bran oil in Japan in 1968. That event poisoned 1,200 people and their unborn children. Victims suffered liver damage, severely disfiguring acne, and birth defects in their children.
Gary Pinsky Adams, who in 1992 was one of the few students to ever actually move out of his dorm room, said in an interview: "Something is wrong when people choose to live this way. But the problem in New Paltz is just a model of the environmental problems we're facing in the world now. In New Paltz, people go to class and ignore the astronauts on the campus. When you graduate, you ignore nuclear power, incinerators, and pesticides in your food."
When the dorms first re-opened in early 1992, Karen Pennington was the director of the residence halls. She asked parents attending an informational meeting, "Are there any guarantees in life?" Twenty years later, the answer is yes. I assure you that those dorms are contaminated with PCBs and dioxins, and if someone did a health study, they would see effects. But does the health of the students matter more than the liability that the college might incur, were the truth to come out?
Environmental activist and historian Carol van Strum once reminded me, "Particularly with regard to toxic exposures, decisions [of state officials] will be made by weighing the risks to you against the benefits to them of allowing such exposure. Necessarily, the first step in such risk/benefit analysis is to conceal, minimize, or deny the risk element, because what decision-makers fear most and will do anything to avoid is having those who bear the risks assert their right to know about and to avoid that exposure."
Every year, another 1,300 young students are exposed. I'll leave you with a question: Who is going to tell them?
For more information, visit DioxinDorms.com.
Additional Research: Amanda Painter and Sara Mononen.