From Blacksburg to New Paltz

Frozen forest in late winter, near New Paltz, New York (in the Clove Valley), far from the contamination on the state college campus. Photo by Eric Francis.

HOW MUCH money would we spend to prevent a catastrophe like the one that happened at Virginia Tech this week? Let’s say we knew in advance, for sure and for certain, that something like this was going to happen, let’s say some time in the next 10 years. Then let’s say that with an act of the legislature, or an expenditure by a government agency, we could — for sure — prevent it from manifesting; prevent all that loss of life, all the grief, all the tearing apart of families and communities. How much would it be worth?

And would we do it? It’s a great question for a university ethics class, but it’s also a real question in our world.

The day that Cho Seung-Hui opened fire on his fellow campus community members, killing 32 of them and injuring many more, I was preparing a special edition to be sent out just past the Aries New Moon addressing an environmental massacre that has been developing on the state college campus in New Paltz, NY since 1991. At the time, it seemed little more than an odd synchronicity that a heartbreaking campus story would become the focus of world attention at the same time I was doing what I could, that same day, to call attention back to dioxins and PCBs in four dormitories at SUNY New Paltz.

As the long hours of this week stretched out, however, I began to get the connection.

Let’s look at the two situations individually, so we know what we’re comparing. In Virginia this week, a student lost control of his mind and shot several dozen people. This is shocking because mass death is always shocking; and also because people expect to be safe when they go away to college. My mom, Camille, put it succinctly in an email to me this week: “It’s not just that this happened here at home. It’s the whole issue of where danger lies. That is not to say it’s OK for our kids to die and lose their feet in a ridiculous war, but it’s no surprise either. No one expects to go to French class and get shot. Who is prepared to hit the floor? Or barricade the door? Or jump out of a window?”

Contrast this with SUNY New Paltz. Imagine this scenario. Your kid dreams of being a schoolteacher, and was accepted there, planning an education major. The big day comes, a sunny afternoon in August, the first day of college. You and your family drive from Long Island up to the Hudson Valley turn right off of the Thruway and you’re in another world. The town is utterly charming, and the mountain setting is stunning enough to make Northern California a little envious. You follow the campus map to Bliss Residence Hall, go to the desk, check in. The roommate’s family is there, and they’re of course very nice.

What was left of Bliss Residence Hall after a Westinghouse PCB transformer exploded on Dec. 29, 1991, spreading dioxins and PCBs throughout a dormitory where 200 young women lived. Fortunately they were away on winter break at the time. This photo was taken some time in 1992. The building was re-occupied after a partial cleanup. Photo by Eric Francis.

You unload the car, then go out for lunch at the Bistro and basically feel great. This is such a turning point: your child is now a young adult, taking a tangible step toward independence.

What you don’t know is this. You just moved your son or daughter into a building where an electrical explosion one cold morning in December 1991 sent levels of toxins spiking a million times the “safe limit.” You don’t know that the radiators and air vents in the building were contaminated when thick, greasy PCB and dioxin-tainted smoke literally soaked the place, rising rapidly because the smoke was so hot and the air was so cold.

You don’t know that in just the first three years, more than $36 million was spent, supposedly to clean the campus, and that the cleanup effort was wracked in scandal, controversy and crisis from the first days. All you see is the surface layer: a nice, if somewhat old, dormitory on a fairly typical campus. You never planned for your child to die of leukemia six years later. And you are appalled that a basic Google search of New Paltz + PCBs warns of just this potential and a good bit besides — but a little too late.

Since the dorms were prematurely re-opened in 1992 and 1993, approximately 15,000 students have come through those very buildings, each of them being exposed to toxins that at best add significantly to what they carry in a polluted world (their body burden, or total lifetime exposure), and at worst, send them over the edge toward a terminal or debilitating illness. The results might be immediate (such as getting mononucleosis) or long-term (such as fertility issues). They may be subtle (a compromised immune system, for no apparent reason) to violent (brain tumors). They may appear in the next generation (childhood vaginal cancer in your granddaughter).

How does this happen? Cleanup levels used to re-open the dorms are outdated. They do something that is now unconscionable in science: they presume a “safe level” of exposure to dioxin and PCBs. Key areas in all four dormitories were never checked for toxins. There is no way to verify the truth of the state’s tests, and it’s nearly impossible for anyone else to get in and take samples. Further, we don’t know what predispositions new students will be coming in with, but we do know that we live in an increasingly toxic world.

There are a few notable differences between New Paltz and Virginia Tech. This week, the deaths were concentrated, and nobody can deny they happened. There was bloodshed and there are obituaries. We also know who the shooter was; he had a face, one we associate with that of a killer, which is in a strange way consoling.

There were witnesses to the crime, and survivors to tell the story. We can explore the psychology of the young man who killed his peers and his teachers. We can trace and debate whether the administration was responsible for not acting to evacuate the campus during the two-hour gap between the shootings. And, most important, when we turn on the TV, we can see the faces of the dead. We see their grieving friends and families. More or less, we know what happened. It is real to us. As such, our moral sensibilities are alerted and we can make decisions about what we want in our lives and in our society.

With students in New Paltz, the effects are scattered in space and time, and many of them will have no apparent connection to having lived in a particular dormitory for two semesters in the distant past. Most people who get sick will not get to tell their story, nor will they appear on the news. They will not have faces we can see. And, should a connection to the New Paltz toxins be made, the killers’ names will not be known. We will not look into the tortured face of a Dr. John Hawley or Dean Palen or Alice Chandler and think, this person killed my son. When bureaucrats kill, they usually do so anonymously, and legally, and are protected by the state if they happen to be sued.

And of course, there is the element of plausible deniability. If you ask them, campus administrators and other state officials will hand you reams of documents supposedly proving how safe their buildings are; how clean the last round of tests was; how effective are their methods of assessing the risk. Most students and parents are unprepared to raise issues like endocrine disruption, synergistic effects and dioxin-like PCBs. Most people will take the word of a smiling administrator in a tie who, after all, would never want to hurt your son or daughter.

Jennifer Folster in 2000.
Photo by Marlis Momber.

But these heartbreaks come home. It seems like yesterday, but it was in the fall of 2000 when I was talking to Jennifer Folster, interviewing her for articles in Woodstock Times and Chronogram in New York.

At that point, Jennifer was desperate to get the word out about New Paltz. She had been exposed to toxins while living in the basement of one of the contaminated dorms, had gotten sick soon after but did not make the connection, and — six years later — was in the late stages of acute myelogenous leukemia.

She was told by her doctors that a genetic predisposition, aggravated by an environmental exposure, probably led to her disease, which was the M2 variety. She had only one known exposure, in Capen Hall. She was suffering greatly and was also told by her doctors that her situation was terminal. Blood transfusions were keeping her alive, but barely, and she couldn’t take it anymore.

She told me that after Thanksgiving with her family, she would stop doing transfusions and probably die within two or three weeks.

She did.

We have no way to know how many scenarios like this have played out during the past 15 years, or how many will in the coming decades. But it is long established that SUNY New Paltz has a problem with its dormitories, and that the true extent of the problem remains unknown. Campus administrators know, but many forms of denial, both official and personal, keep the situation from being addressed.

Nobody is studying the health of graduates and former students — understandably enough, from a liability perspective. In the event of a future lawsuit, it’s not the kind of thing you want to have in your files. Nobody is warning students at the point when they are moving in; everything is kept as quiet as possible, and even as late as 2004 I was threatened with arrest for even discussing the matter in one of the contaminated dormitories.

Seen in this light, Cho Seung-Hui seems like an honest guy, because at least we know he is a killer; at least he admitted it.

We can solve the New Paltz problem with some money, some community involvement and some political will. Taking action now will surely prevent additional disaster on the scale of Virginia Tech — though sadly, it will do nothing for the students who have come and gone from New Paltz. But the future is longer than the past.

How to do it is simple. The four dorms, Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls, need to be tested for toxins, in the right places — not the clean ones that are routinely checked. The testing must follow strict protocols for independence and community observation, with samples from each location handed over to Federal Express with witnesses, and each analyzed by two labs (called split sampling). If the buildings are indeed toxic, they need to be shut down.

Then they need to be either permanently retired, or torn down and replaced. New York State knows that you can’t get PCBs and dioxins out of a structure once it’s contaminated. They know it will be cheaper and much more effective to replace them than trying to renovate them. Many parts of the buildings will need to be put in hazardous waste landfills: all of the air vents, for example, all of the radiators, and all of the electrical conduits. It may turn out that everything needs to be put into a toxic waste landfill, and it would be prudent to cover them in large tents before the work begins so the contamination is not released to the outer environment.

State bureaucrats will not be happy about any of this. But they have no right to be serial killers in suits, guarding their precious budgets, while the people who pay their salaries agonize and die, or so much as worry about their safety for one minute.

Forest floor, the Grandmother Land, near New Paltz, New York. Photo by Eric Francis.

A Clear Mountain Stream: Taurus Solar Returns, part one

By Eric Francis

AS WE pick up this episode of Taurus birthdays, one year later and perhaps a decade wiser, your guiding planet Venus is in hot pursuit of Mars. The pursuit is a square from Venus (in Gemini) to Mars (in Pisces). This seemingly outer pursuit is really an inner dilemma of some kind: a struggle between the assertive and passive aspects of your nature and most significantly, an effort to come to terms with something in your sexual identity.

There are numerous ways to look into this crystal for a little peek at what is happening, but we could start with your relationship between the physical aspects of your reality (that is, when your body and deep emotions talk to you) and the mental ones (what you want, the rules you live by and the ideas you have about life). In essence, Venus square Mars seems to be saying that your opinions are trying to catch up with your deeper feelings.

You are quite literally in pursuit of yourself, but it’s dramatized as some kind of struggle in a relationship, or possibly two relationships. Venus and Mars in their respective signs often suggest double situations, but the square tells us that the real polarity is within. Many people experience both male and female realities within themselves; this aspect is about a drama toward a reconciliation between the inner lovers. It may take some adventurous forms.

And you may be resisting the whole thing, because certain parts of the scenario are disagreeable. Resistance, if it’s present, could be showing up when things ‘keep getting in the way’. Here is what I would propose this is all about. You are really at a turning point in your life, one deeper than you may have reckoned so far. On one level it seems like a new form of the usual drama, but the story is leading someplace else at this point, toward a point that will very soon feel inevitable.

The main dilemma is between the past and the present, which is another way of saying what is real and what is a theory. I suggest you stop and straddle this chasm, uncomfortable though it may be, a gap within you that seems wider than it has ever felt before. If you will avoid your usual escape route into hedonism, and sit with the tension, you will be able to use it move that recalcitrant mind of yours.

There is a reckoning in progress, and that reckoning is with yourself. You are the one thing you must deal with before you can go on with your own existence. Over the past few weeks, with fireworks going off in Aries, your fiery 12th solar house, you have been driven and restless, indeed, saying and doing many things that you may not understand and some you would like to go back on. Others fall into the category of what you never would have ordinarily done, but now admit you had to do. This condition of having a fire sign for your 12th house reveals something of the deeper nature of Taurus: the earthy exterior and the fiery interior, with the two often at odds with one another.

The highly dualistic nature of this house comes with one of those messages that sounds like ‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadow’, and at times it fairly well drives you to the edges of yourself. However, what you are doing now, the growth you are inviting now, can only be done close to the brink of your identity, not in the solid center portions where you are so certain who you are.

Now that the Sun has reached Taurus, the somewhat wild tour of this region of your awareness is vanishing like a dream. It is a dream that has had an impact, and one you can remember. Yet it’s as if you’ve awoken this morning and suddenly felt your feet touch firm Earth for the first time, whereas before it felt like you were running along the overhanging edge of a cliff. You would do well to ask where all those fears and insecurities went.

The human ego turns into a strange entity when its existence is seemingly threatened by the appearance of something more, such as love, creative power or the need to exist in conscious relationship. Yet you are safe, living on your own distant edge, or teetering on the knife-point of your destiny. You are safe despite all the continuing messages that you must make regular movement part of your life, and continually encounter that which is unfamiliar.

You are safe, despite the fact that it often seems others know more about you and what you need and where you are going than you do. This may be true, and you may or may not like it. But at the least you have something to consider when the people you feel the most strongly about propose something that really makes you wonder — or when their presence provides a sudden, firm and undeniable tug in the direction you know you already feel pulled to travel.

Neptune in Aquarius tells us that you have dreamed many dreams in the past decade or so, but Chiron in this sign reveals that you are now in the crisis of manifestation. You may have noticed a real shift about two years ago. Those years have been long and somewhat complex and it seems your sense of grounding is under constant siege. Yet you must, at least, treat this era of your life as different than any other, with the challenges and responsibilities that come from some form of sudden success, recognition or awareness of your mission.

Maturity is often a factor in the human psyche that is compelled by circumstances. It does not, generally, occur by accident. Be glad now that you have the conditions in your life that favor your inner growth, a more sober and decidedly less romantic attitude toward relationships, and at long last true opportunities to take your creative talents seriously. On this last point, remember: art is based on technical skills, which must be mastered, but to be alive, to be something that touches others, you must infuse your creations with your own living spirit.

That is the real discipline; the real work; and in an odd way, the results are tangible evidence to yourself that you are developing into the person you know you are and always were, but could never quite access.

Taurus Ingress of the Sun

El Soul entered Taurus early this morning for most of our readers, in a moment when Venus and Mars (the ruler of Venus and its opposite sign Scorpio) are the two planets currently highlighted. They are involved in a 90-degree aspect that is developing slowly, very slowly it seems. Both are in mutable signs: Venus is in Gemini and Mars is in Pisces, signs with much in common, including an edginess and each possessing a sci-fi like effect of making everything into a reflection of itself; everything seeming to take on two aspects; and the inner dialog often being more pronounced than outer.

When the two make their exact square Monday, April 23, it will be in a close alignment to the lunar nodes, which are currently at the exact midpoint of Virgo and Pisces. The “something happens” quality of a square is exaggerated by the presence of the nodes: they add a level of depth and mystery you can’t buy in a spiritual bookstore.

Venus in particular is in an interesting configuration. She is approaching a square not just to Mars but to the nodes, which occurs two days later, then to Uranus. This is a turning point in all matters of the heart, representing a reckoning of the Gemini factor of that Venus. A head trip needs to be grounded as a journey of the heart. Mars in Pisces on the North Node is somewhat more decisive, or at least sure of himself; Venus, the quicker planet, seems to be in the position of being subject to an influence or of needing to respond; what she is trying to do is make up her own mind. But that influence is going to be there.

And as Venus moves into a square with Uranus on April 27, it will be there even more strongly, though in a different form, perhaps one more compelling, less easy to resist, less like seeming “opposite” and more like an equivalent (if not equal). Yet two days following that, Mars and Uranus form a conjunction, which is a sign that the sky is full of surprises and we had better stop guessing.

We have one remaining major-planet factor of the week’s Aries events, which is Mercury in Aries. Much of what we experienced during the past week, by the way, involved trines from the Sun and Moon to Pluto and the Galactic Core. People say trines are “easy” but this is a reason to burn your astrology books. This was not an easy week for many people, though what did move with ease was a lot of Plutonian and galactic energy from Sagittarius through Aries, which basically sent ripples through just about everyone and everything.

Speaking of the Sun, it is currently in a tense angle to Chiron, and by extension, the Chiron-Nessus conjunction in Aquarius. Here we continue with our questioning of the nature of maleness and our relationship to our father’s sense of his maleness. Most of us admire our dads, while being painfully aware that their masculinity is injured or in some way compromised. The developing square aspect here to me suggests that we look at the ways we have altered our own nature to compensate for that sense of wounding, and how that compromises us in expressing ourselves. In what ways have we shaped our entire personality to compensate for dad’s lack of confidence?

The square, exact in two weeks but in range of feeling now, would seem like a more subtle turning point than it really is. When two or more patterns are overlaid, it’s not often easy to determine which one is the primary tempo and which is the flourish. What we think was a minor factor in influencing us can reveal itself to be a far more significant one, if we happen to notice what we’re even seeing from an unfamiliar angle.




Weekly Horoscope for Friday, April 20, 2007, #659 – By ERIC FRANCIS

Aries (March 20-April 19)
Your chart looks like you just got off an airplane, but your ears refuse to adjust to the new pressure. That’s because for the most part you’re still flying around at that high altitude. Can you really exist on two levels at once? You can, but it’s a bit uncomfortable; in truth, more than a bit. It’s a little like knowing something and not knowing something at the same time, and we have a word for this, which is denial. The opposite of denial is affirmation. What do you need to affirm? What do you need to say yes to? Yes is the way forward. Try saying yes to yourself.

Taurus (April 19-May 20)
You are usually a person of few and well-chosen words. A particular situation in your life appears to have you in a position where you need to explain yourself, but I would propose that what you’re trying to do is understand yourself. In trying to do this, perhaps look at what is tangible rather than what exists in theory, in desire, or in your best hopes. Try to account for your understanding through a track record of some kind, an accounting trail, or a sequence of events that you can identify. Be aware that these things may only be clues that point to the facts you need, rather than the facts themselves.

Gemini (May 20-June 21)
Mind your image. You have, no doubt, been aware of this theme for a while, but there are other factors that suggest strongly that you not give a toss about what anyone thinks of you. Arrogance is indeed a key to success in the Western world. There are so many obstacles and so much competition that one must, at key times, proceed with a sense of entitlement, and now would appear to be one of them. Yet be mindful that you are close to an understanding with a key person who has the power to influence this whole scenario. Therefore, make sure you not only mind your manners, but remember that success often arises from the quality of our relationships with successful people.

Cancer (June 21-July 22)
Enjoy the tension while it lasts. An odd thing to suggest, perhaps, given the not-entirely-pleasant meeting of energies that is basically keeping you awake and alert and making decisions, but you must admit it’s useful for those purposes. Anything you see outside you is the dramatization of an experience within, and if you will merely acknowledge that, you will take away the power it seems to hold over you. Okay, but what has this got to do with enjoyment? Well, to work with this situation effectively is a stretch, and it will push you to be creative, and that will have benefits. They have the potential to be extremely pleasant.

Leo (July 22-Aug. 23)
At least you are getting your due; you did a good job of making sure that your voice was heard by those who needed to hear it. Now with the Sun crossing the midheaven axis of your chart, you need to be the one setting the best example, and to walk around reminding yourself that you can’t get away with anything. There is nothing to get away with, really, unless you have decided in advance that your integrity is somehow lacking. That of course is a choice you make from minute to minute, and from day to day. What you need to be aware of is that as you set an example, so will the people around you respond and act in a like manner. Every action thus becomes an investment in the future.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sep. 22)
You may feel you’ve taken on more than you can handle, or that it is taking on you. However, at no point in this discussion or exchange is it necessary to abandon reason. You merely need to dial it on your psychic cell phone as a conscious choice. No matter how hot the interchange, no matter how out of control or unpredictable or fated anything may seem, speak directly to the aspect of awareness that you want to reach. If you’ve forgotten what it is, step back and remember. If you can’t quite remember, feel. The memory of who you are has been kept safely in your emotions. Your mind will give you a voice at a time when you need one deeply.

Libra (Sep. 22-Oct. 23)
If you rush to resolve the tension you’re feeling, you’re likely to miss the deeper pleasure and the more adventurous surprise. You can take the situation fast or slow; you can call forth emotions on a level to which you’re accustomed, or from the deeper space that you’ve recently just discovered. But here is the way that emotions may play a role in what some people call destiny. The longer you play out the situation, the deeper of a space you come from, the more profound of a change you will create in your life. If that’s the subject of the real question: to what extent do you want a profound shift in your life? To that extent, bide your time gently.

Scorpio (Oct. 23-Nov. 22)
The Sun has now crossed the sensitive relationship angle of your solar chart, which is likely to have a calming effect on a variety of situations that will benefit from just that. Because you are someone who’s changing and pushing others to change so constantly, you need influences that offer stability and clarity, and you benefit from the reminder that it’s possible to be stable in a way that does not slow down progress but rather guides it along at a healthy pace. Make sure your own creative efforts are set in this direction: steady progress is what counts; not fits and starts, and not no progress at all.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 22)
You never seem to have a calm moment at home; if I were you I would take an apartment in town, not install a phone and leave your cell phone on a train. However, you cannot really do that, though what you need to remember is that the more aggressive or forceful someone’s attitude is, the more politically aware you must be; in other words, to the extent anyone acts like an idiot, you need to be a diplomat. It may not seem to make a difference now, but there will soon come a time when you will need your political capital, which means you must conserve it now, and do so in the form of being quietly persuasive.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 20)
You seem to be doing four things at once, though I suggest you simplify matters and focus on no more than two of them. They are likely to be the two things you like the best, rather than those you feel you must do, or that you need to do. I also suggest you choose before circumstances press you to do so, because factors that are changing rapidly will take over before long. Have faith that you’re heading toward a breakthrough, but bear in mind that when the big advance in your thinking arrives, it will be the result of creativity and not of labor.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 19)
It is bold to dare happiness in this world. Most of what we strive for are its substitutes: success, achievement, the fulfillment of desire. Happiness is a need that we most often reach traveling in reverse; the moment one is aware of its existence, we can relax into contentment. There may be too much tension in your life to feel you can do that now; you may be burning with a sense of urgency, or facing many critical turning points that on one level feel directly within reach, and on another feel impossible. Yet within you is the point of resolution of this polarity. Relax and feel the perfection of that.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20)
Reassuring developments over the next few days will go a long way to support what you already know, though on another level there is just as much emphasis on the mystery of how you’re getting there. Through all the developments of the past few weeks, something has remained constant. You may at this point want to question what exactly is guiding your steps and your decisions, and commit one way or the other to whether or not you trust this factor. True, what’s really changing is your awareness and your receptiveness to guidance. That’s another way of saying that what is changing is your willingness to feel, and your affirmation that to feel is to feel strong.

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