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Dioxin Dorms

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How many mobile phones have you owned? I don’t even like the things, I barely use them and I’ve probably owned 10 since I first got one in 2000. It does not help that in order to switch carriers or move countries, you often have to purchase a new phone. Then comes the BlackBerry. Then comes the iPhone. Then a mountain of phones, chargers, and hand-held devices that would stand tall next to Etna.

We rely on these things to organize our lives and keep pace with the speed of technology. What exactly do you do when you find out that they are associated with brain tumors?

Fission for the truth

From the time Chernobyl blew in spring 1986, I knew I would be an environmental journalist. My main field was politics; I aspired to be the editorial page editor of a major newspaper, but with that incident the world changed—it was a different place. Radiation from a corner of the Ukraine was turning up around the globe; thousands of Ukrainian towns and cities were destroyed. French cheese and US milk would contain the same radiation from one nuclear reactor thousands of miles away.

After covering a diversity of industries as a trade journalist (beverage, alcohol, towing, medical education), I ended up covering public higher education. As a grad student at New Paltz, I started a news service that covered the state and city universities of New York.

I was busy doing this when, at 7:30am one Sunday in 1991, I was awakened by the sound of sirens going past my girlfriend’s house. When I went to work later that day there was a note on my desk: PCB transformers on the campus had exploded, contaminating several buildings. I knew enough to stay away. Within 24 hours I was in contact with Lois Gibbs, who had organized the evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood. I had talked to Ward Stone, the state wildlife pathologist and one of the most revered anti-toxin scientists in the world. Paul and Ellen Connett, longtime municipal waste incinerator activists, were feeding me information and contacts.

I didn’t know I had stepped down the rabbit hole. If you had told me I would still be writing about the campus in 2009, I would have been stunned. (One of my mentors told me he worked on an issue and didn’t get results for six months—that was discouraging enough.) My investigation took me back to 1929, when Swann Chemical began making chlorinated biphenyls, through the company’s acquisition by Monsanto in 1935, and deep into a cover-up involving General Electric and Westinghouse. My work was published everywhere from Sierra magazine to the Las Vegas Sun and the Village Voice. The New York Times followed the saga of my coverage for a while, including a federal lawsuit against the administration for banning me from campus.

I won a first-place award for my coverage, and that night, when two of my older, wiser friends took me out to dinner to celebrate, I said I wanted to send it back to the State Press Association. They asked why. Because after writing hundreds of articles, I responded, the dorms and the theater were still open; students were still being contaminated. They assured me that my coverage had resulted in a much more thorough clean-up, which (though badly done) was better than nothing. They reminded me I had forced New York State to spend more than $50 million to make at least some effort to solve the problem.

So I kept going, focusing on two dormitories I feared were contaminated and which, of all the buildings, had been cleaned up the least: Gage and Capen halls. In the back of my mind, though I could not focus on it, the condition of the theater always worried me.

By this spring, I was ready to give up. Nobody on campus wanted to deal with the issue, particularly students. Nobody wanted to hear about the problem and nobody was willing to take responsibility for the young students who were being contaminated. Campus officials worked for the state, and if the state said it was safe, then by golly it was safe.

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