New Paltz PCBs, Volume 11
Planet Waves by Eric Francis

Bliss Dormitory 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. It was re-opened to students about 18 months after the explosion.

AS REGULAR READERS of Chronogram know, each year I devote one column to the PCB situation at SUNY New Paltz. That's a total of 8% of my essay section -- not a bad investment to keep the campus rumor mill active, keep the issue alive in the Internet search engines, and, with any luck, warn one or two students out of Bliss, Capen, Gage or Scudder halls. One or two students? I am not especially optimistic. But the raging idealist who lives on the other side of my brain has faith that one fine year, the message will come across, and students will finally shut the places down.

The end of 2002 will bring the 11th anniversary of the electrical explosions that shut down the campus for a month, threatened the abandonment of the entire SUNY New Paltz facility, and resulted in a more-than $50 million cleanup. It was the most expensive PCB cleanup in state history, and certainly a world-class price tag. There is, however, a fallacy that the whole thing was over long ago, which is true from the perspective of New York State and the SUNY administration. They want very much for it to be over. But it will not be over until there is proper testing for contamination in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls, and it will not be over until new scientific studies, rather than 25-year-old ones, are used to assess the danger of supposedly "low" levels of PCBs and dioxins in student living environments.

PCBs were designed for their strength and durability, and they do persist --
in the environment, in dorm heating systems, and in our bodies.

PCBs and dioxins are toxins that attack the immune system, the endocrine system and the reproductive system. There is evidence that their effects go seven generations from the point of exposure, so any of these chemicals that you take in today will affect your children and grandchildren, down the line to people whom your own grandchildren will never actually meet. PCBs, which come in the form of thick, oily fluids, were in wide use as fire-retardants in the United States until Congress banned them (in new equipment) as an environmental and health menace in 1978. Health studies showing serious problems go back to 1937, but the manufacturers, including Monsanto, GE and Westinghouse, concealed the dangers from the public, the government and the media, as has been well-documented in Sierra magazine, the Village Voice and most lately the Washington Post.

Here is the basic two-paragraph synopsis of what happened at New Paltz. On the cold, icy morning of Dec. 29, 1991, a driver lost control of her car and hit a utility pole. This caused two power cables to fuse, which in turn caused electrical problems on the campus two miles away. Old, decaying electrical equipment in dorms and academic buildings, the manufacture of which had been banned more than a decade earlier, overheated, burned and exploded. Toxic, oily smoke flooded buildings, spilled onto floors, and seeped into the ground water. Worst hit was the Coykendall Science Building; Bliss Hall was a close second, with Scudder and Gage. Parker Theater, wrapped in plastic, was unrecognizable. Capen had incidents in two different transformers. Gage's transformer exploded. Fortunately, school was closed for the holidays at the time.

The state began a cleanup, under the supervision of Ulster County Health Commissioner Dean N. Palen (at the time, he was the assistant commissioner). Many shortcuts were taken. The most significant problem is that official state standards allow "low" levels of toxins to be present in a "clean" building, because old scientific studies were being used which presume that some exposure to these chemicals is safe. It is now known that there is no safe level of exposure, but this issue was ignored. Meanwhile, serious contamination problems were discovered in some buildings and not checked for in others. For example, the Bliss Hall heating system was contaminated, but there are no tests on record for the heating systems of Scudder, Capen and Gage halls, which means that if they were tested, it was done secretly. The buildings were declared safe, the paperwork was certified, and now students live and attend classes in them. And it happened so long ago that, for the most part, it's forgotten. It's no longer a news story, so it's not in the news.

But the problem is that forgotten does not mean gone. PCBs were designed for their strength and durability, and they do persist -- in the environment, in dorm heating systems, and in our bodies. Another problem is that we don't know the real levels in the buildings. This is because the state has been responsible for the testing. While "third parties" do the actual sampling and analysis, there are many ways to take the samples that understate the problem (for example, looking where you know it's going to be clean). The state was responsible for the problem, its officials ran the cleanup, certified the buildings safe, and now they are in charge of assuring people that everything is fine. And they are very convincing. If you want to be reassured that everything is fine, I can assure you: they will convince you. They can make you feel like sleeping in Bliss Hall is the best thing you ever did for yourself. That is their job. The reasoning goes like this: those dorms have been so well cleaned and so well tested that they're safer than the Hilton. And, if you believe that, living next to the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster was just like getting two dental X-rays.

For those of you who are freshmen, recently arrived at college, I know it's a first-class drag to read this. But you are not powerless. It's easy to get out, if you happen to live in a contaminated building. Part of the reason why it's so easy to get out is, sad to say, because so few people care, so it's rather easy to find space for anyone who growls. In any massive housing system there are always vacancies or ways to shuffle people into spaces. Everyone I know of who has ever requested to be moved has been moved. The worst prospect you face by piping up is getting moved to a different place, away from your friends, who get to remain in rooms that are "mildly" contaminated with some of the most toxic chemicals on Earth. But hey, you can still visit.

Most people don't get it, however. In 1992, after Scudder had re-opened after a six-month partial cleanup, work was proceeding in Bliss Hall around the clock. The leaves were gone from the trees at this point, so once it got dark, students in Scudder could look across the courtyard into Bliss Hall, where they saw men working in those white "moon suits" with air canisters on their backs, eerily illuminated by generators. The students did not make the connection to their own building, which had recently been vacated by the same moon-men and re-opened to students. It was just, like, wow, look at those dudes in space suits.

The story of Gage Hall is also worth telling. The building smoked over pretty badly in Dec. 29, 1991, and early on, several people, including myself, took the issue of whether the ventilation ducts were contaminated to the state and county. Officials said no, there are no vents. But then I discovered that the vents in Bliss and Scudder had been replaced. So I asked about that, and was told that there was no reason to even test the Gage vents (which now suddenly existed) because there was no contamination in any rooms connected by those vents. Then, I discovered that those rooms had almost all been contaminated. But don't worry, I was told, the vents are clean. Of course, no one had ever tested them.

This game went on till I went into Gage Hall one morning and scooped some crud out of a vent and sent it to a lab and had it analyzed, and got back a significant PCB hit. The state, responding to this, first claimed that there was "no evidence of contamination." Then, they tested the Gage vents themselves and found contamination in every single vent. Then, they secretly cleaned the vents to the arm's length, and moved students back into the building (which had already been open for two years!), telling parents they had cleaned the place up.

So, you get the picture. I hope.++

For the other side of the story, call:

Corinna Caracci, the director of Residence Life, at (845) 257-4444.

For lots more information, go to

Eric Francis is an investigative reporter whose work has appeared in The Village Voice, Sierra, The New York Times op-ed page and many local newspapers. He has written for Chronogram since 1996.

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