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 December 29, 1991.
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 December 31, 1991. 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.
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 Chandler 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.”
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.
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.” 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 passageway, 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.”
Eric Janssen, a former congressional aide who co-wrote the 1976 federal law banning PCBs, has said: “There’s a million and one ways to get exposed. 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. 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, the head of the Ulster Country Health Department at the time, 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.”
When asked how toxins had concentrated in the rooms that had vents, Palen 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; Palen 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.
Lois Gibbs, who in the 1970s had organized the citizen effort to evacuate the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, helped me with many of my articles. Gibbs once said, “The whole thing is just outrageous—to mislead people and and to have total disregard for the health and safety of the students there. 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.
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 2000, 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 is not so inconvenient. Yet I’ve seen very few students or parents actually express concern to the point of actually doing something.
When a student is on their way into the dorms as a healthy person, it’s easier to accept the assurances of a college spokesperson, who will tell you: “The college, along with the New York Sate 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.
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. He 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.
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 students are exposed. Who is going to tell them?
For more information, visit www.dioxindorms.com.