Eric Francis Coppolino
Investigative Journalist
PO Box 3606 | Kingston NY 12402
(845) 797-3458

Letter from Eric Francis to Kevin Cahill


May 5, 1993

Member of the New York State Assembly
Committee on Higher Education
Legislative Office Building Room 625
Albany, New York 12247


When we met to discuss the SUNY New Paltz PCB, dioxin and dibenzofuran situation on Jan. 29, 1993, we agreed that I would express my questions to you in writing and that you would do your best to seek out satisfactory answers. Our initial communication, at which I presented you with a collection of published materials on the subject and provided an approximately one hour briefing on facts and questions uncovered through my reporting, was conducted at the suggestion of Edward C. Sullivan, chair of the NYS Assembly Committee on Higher Education. Mr. Sullivan said that as a member of the Higher Ed. Committee and as the representative of the legislative district which includes the college, you would be the appropriate initial person with whom to communicate on the issue.

During the sixteen months I have been covering this $25 million (and still counting) [Note: the final cost of the cleanup exceeded $50 million. -ef] cleanup project, my work has expanded beyond New Paltz and now encompasses reporting on the more than 50-year history of the dangers of polychlorinated biphenyl chemicals and PCB-containing equipment. This history includes an apparent pattern of concealment by PCB manufacturers, who have also allegedly made misleading and outright false statements to the federal government, the public, their workers and, most pertinent to this situation, their customers. The denial of reality by the manufacturers continues to the present day -- in March, for example, a Westinghouse spokesperson assured me that "PCB transformers cannot explode," period. The transformers formerly located in Bliss and Gage residence halls on the New Paltz campus, both of which were manufactured by Westinghouse, exploded Dec. 29, 1991. Given this history of concealment -- of which New York State is no doubt a victim -- there is no level of misinformation on the issue that would surprise me.

Indeed, my own ignorance about the issues at the time of the 1991 incidents has taken some effort to transcend. Since that time, my research has been facilitated by a considerable number of individuals, including scientists, medical doctors, authors, journalists, environmental attorneys, toxicologists, engineers, professors and other specialists in various disciplines related to the issue. They have provided instruction and a great deal of reading material, including scientific studies, books, articles, primary source documents and other literature, of which I have done my best to gain a genuine understanding. The questions that follow are based on a synthesis of information I have gathered through this research, as well as the examination of state documents and other investigation into the New Paltz PCB fires and explosions.

The PCB Fires and Explosions in New Paltz

As you are aware, a car collision with a utility pole at 6:28 a.m. on Dec. 29, 1991 is believed to have led to a chain of events on the SUNY New Paltz campus resulting in the failure of at least six electrical transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) dielectric fluid. This fluid was put in the transformers at the time of manufacturing as a fire-retardant insulator and coolant. PCBs were later banned by Congress under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976 as an "imminent threat" to human health and the environment, though current regulations make exceptions to the ban and allow continued, indefinite PCB use in some electrical equipment under very specific conditions.

The New Paltz transformer failures resulted in the extensive contamination of air, surfaces and other areas in campus buildings, and tainted outside air, earth, underground areas, groudwater, storm sewers, utility manholes, roadways and other areas.

Despite the unsubstantiated claims of some individuals to the contrary, some of which have been published locally, the devastating health effects of PCBs are well established by both industry and medical science. PCBs have been the subject of more than 8000 studies and scholarly articles, plus numerous investigations and reports in the popular press. Studies conducted since the 1930s, as well as reports from afflicted individuals and their survivors, indicate that exposure to PCBs is responsible for a broad spectrum of physical illnesses, including: birth defects in the children of exposed individuals (including mental retardation), cancer of various kinds (cancers of the liver, brain, lungs and breast, among others), immune system suppression, still births, disfiguring skin conditions, and liver damage. Or, as the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put it in its decision of Feb. 9, 1976 in the matter of General Electric's massive, illegal PCB discharges into the Hudson River, "PCB discharges are toxic substances, capable of causing skin lesions, destroying body cells, adversely affecting reproduction and inducing cancer and death" [6ELR 30007, 4/76]. In the 17 years since that decision was issued, considerably more has been learned about PCBs, both from modern studies and disclosures of previously secret history. For a user-friendly synopsis of the history of PCBs, I would refer you to RACHEL's Hazardous Waste News issues 327 and 329, published March 4 and 18, 1993, respectively ("How We Got Here: The History of the Chlorinated [B]iphenyl (PCBs)," parts 1 and 2).

It has been documented for nearly a quarter century that when PCB oil ages, is heated or combusts in the presence of oxygen, it creates compounds orders of magnitude more toxic than PCBs themselves, including dioxins and dibenzofurans. These compounds cause most of the illnesses and physiological damage of PCBs, plus a variety of other problems -- yet in much smaller doses and often with greater persistence. Apart from being an extremely potent carcinogen, dioxin is known to cause two rather insidious effects: damage to the hormonal (endocrine) systems of animals and humans, and birth defects in animals and humans. Dioxin is what is called by medical science a "teratogenic," which literally (from the Greek) means that it "makes monsters." And it can do this in barely measurable quantities. Dioxins and dibenzofurans were found in high levels in two campus residence halls, including in Bliss Residence Hall, an all-women's dorm, and were also found in several other locations. Other toxic by-products of PCB fires, such as polychlorinated quaterphenyls -- which are the most persistent products of PCBs -- were not even checked for, according to state and county officials involved in managing the cleanup.

Up to seven PCB transformers in six SUNY New Paltz buildings are acknowledged by state authorities to have been affected by the Dec. 29, 1991 electrical accident. At least two transformers exploded (those formerly located in Bliss and Gage residence halls); others burned and/or exploded and/or cracked open, spilling and vaporizing their contents (those formerly located in Coykendall Sciences Building, Scudder Residence Hall and Parker Theater); and the failure of two units may have been limited to overheating and less severe burning of the contents in a high-heat situation (those units formerly located in Capen Residence Hall).

It is important to recognize, for two reasons, that what happened in New Paltz was no ordinary PCB disaster. First, while there have been a dozen or so publicly acknowledged, major PCB transformer accidents in the U.S. (beginning with the February 1981 Binghamton State Office Building explosion and fire), never has there been reported such a chain reaction incident involving multiple transformers. It is also interesting to note that none of the units involved in the New Paltz incident were supposedly in the transformer categories that must be removed or abated under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules.

Second, when investigators checked the campus for contamination in the days following the electrical accident, PCB contamination was found in a total of 15 campus buildings -- not just the six buildings in which the transformer "chain reaction" fires and explosions occurred. This includes wide-spread contamination in the Former Library Building (where there are currently three PCB-based transformers manufactured by Westinghouse). Other buildings where PCB contamination was found: the Administration Building, the Elting Gymnasium, the Health Center, the Heating Plant, Smiley Arts Building, Sojourner Truth Library, the Student Union Building and the Van Den Berg Learning Center, all of which currently are equipped with PCB-based transformers -- as are more than 425 other SUNY buildings, or one in four SUNY buildings.

Questions About the New Paltz PCB Fires and Explosions

Most of my questions will focus on the diligence of the cleanup in the four affected residence halls, which reportedly housed 990 students at the time of the explosions and fires. Fortunately, the college was on recess at the time of the transformer fires and explosions, or most of these students would have faced severe exposure before and during evacuation. Some 800 students are now living in three of those buildings, and an additional 190 women are slated to move into Bliss Residence Hall in August. I will begin, however, with a question relating to the other nine New Paltz buildings which were found to have been contaminated.

1. How and when did these other nine buildings become contaminated? What has the state done to investigate this? Have the other approximately 425 PCB-equipped State University buildings been checked for contamination as a result of the discovery of contamination in these nine additional New Paltz buildings? What is the exact schedule for removal or abatement of these approximately 425 transformers? Does it meet EPA regulations? What is the plan for or removal or abatement of these approximately 425 transformers? Is there a published schedule for the implementation of such a plan?

2. In the sixteen months since the accidents, I have not encountered a satisfactory explanation for what actually caused the PCB disaster. Some sources say it was power spike; others say it was instead a "shift of phase" in the electrical current which damaged the transformers. Both are relatively common occurrences.

SUNY has made a case for the "shift of phase" theory as it affects transformers with a so-called "wye-grounded primary connection," with which many or all of the six affected New Paltz transformers were configured. According to this theory, the shift of phase leads to excess heating of this type of transformer, causing it to malfunction (crack, burn or explode). On this topic, the May 1992 official SUNY report on the New Paltz incidents, prepared by W P S Engineering of Albany, states that, "There has been abundant discussion concerning the problems encountered with the wye-grounded primary connection. The most important concern has been induction heating which could prove disastrous with the proper ingredients."

The report also states that the probability of a recurrence of a similar incident is "too low to calculate." Yet the fact that the fires and explosions happened once, despite its apparent implausibility, seems to point, rather directly, to the possibility that it can happen again.

What caused the transformer failures? Have the other wye-grounded primary connection transformers around the SUNY system been identified, and what corrective action has been taken? Has EPA been notified of SUNY's observation of this phenomenon?

3. As you may be aware, EPA rules for the continued use of PCB transformers called for the installation of "enhanced electrical protection" on PCB transformers by October of 1990. The college is presently facing $272,000 in fines from EPA for violations which include the alleged failure by the college to provide this "enhanced electrical protection" on five PCB units not involved in the Dec. 29, 1991 PCB incidents. EPA officials said that they could not inspect the involved transformers for enhanced electrical protection in the six buildings where the incidents occurred because the transformer vaults were too severely contaminated.

What evidence is there that the transformers involved in the accidents actually had "enhanced electrical protection"? If they did have this protection and it did not work, what is to prevent similar incidents in the future? Is SUNY currently in compliance with the EPA "Fire Rules" which regulate the use of PCB transformers?

4. Dean Palen, the Ulster County Director of Environmental Sanitation and the official responsible for authorizing the re-opening of campus buildings, said in an interview conducted by me for the Village Voice in March 1993 that the ventilation systems in Capen and Gage residence halls were never checked for contamination. These same ventilation systems were neither cleaned nor replaced before some 500 students were promptly moved back into the buildings. Engineers and other authorities with whom I have spoken said that a ventilation system is the first place that should be checked if a PCB fire or other similar incident has contaminated a building.

Visible smoke with a sweet odor characteristic of PCBs was reported by eyewitnesses in and around both Capen and Gage residence halls Dec. 29, 1991. Inside Gage Residence Hall, New Paltz volunteer firefighter Pat Koch, who entered the building on a search and rescue mission for other firefighters, said in a taped interview with Student Leader News Service last January that, "All you saw was smoke." Matthew Dunphy, one of seven students evacuated from Capen Residence Hall, described a haze of smoke on the second floor of that building, and described thick smoke on the ground level as well. Therefore, it is likely that PCB-, dioxin-, and dibenzofuran-tainted smoke circulated through the air handling systems of Capen and Gage residence halls. Since these systems are exhaust vent systems, it is quite possible that contaminated air was drawn directly into the vents.

Significantly, the ventilation systems in both Bliss and Scudder residence halls -- buildings nearly identical to Capen and Gage residence halls -- were found to have been badly contaminated as a result of the Dec. 29, 1991 incidents. These systems were cleaned (in the case of the three separate systems in Scudder Hall) and entirely replaced (in the case of Bliss Hall).

Given these facts, why have state and county health officials neglected to check the Capen and Gage ventilation systems for PCBs, dioxins, dibenzofurans and contamination with other PCB-related toxins? When will tests be conducted? When will students and workers in these buildings be officially informed that no tests were conducted on the ventilation systems? One of the lessons learned from the Binghamton fire was that ventilation systems are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clean. Were the specific facts surrounding this lesson factored into the Scudder ventilation system cleanup? What documentation of this thought process exists?

5-A. According to Alison Smith, an engineer with Clean Harbors Inc. (the state's primary environmental contractor retained for the New Paltz situation), explosion simulation tests conducted with smoke bombs in May 1992 indicated that the heating system in Bliss Residence Hall was a path of PCB contamination. Smith said that this was confirmed when five radiators in student dormitory rooms were spot-checked for PCBs as a result of information derived from the smoke bomb tests. Smith said that the contamination did not travel inside the heat pipes, but rather followed the pipes on their pathways through "conduits," or spaces, in the building. As a result of this discovery, heating units in Bliss Hall dormitory rooms were scrubbed down as part of the cleanup of that building.

Yet Capen and Gage residence halls were opened months before the smoke bomb tests were conducted in Bliss Residence Hall, prior to any knowledge or acknowledged suspicion of heating system contamination in any building. Cleanup plans for Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls on file with the college do not call for cleaning the radiators or any other part of the heat systems (such as the pipes).

My understanding of the possible problems involving this type of heat system contamination in Capen, Gage and Scudder Halls, should it exist, relates to what happens when the heat systems are activated. First, any residual smoke that is on pipes as a result of the fires would be slowly volatilized. In the process, the heat could cause oxidation of the PCBs, transforming them into dibenzofurans and other toxins, then depositing them into the air and moving them around the building in convection currents.

Numerous toxins experts and engineers, including Dr. Arnold Schecter (who was the Broome County Health Commissioner during the early months of the 1981 Binghamton PCB episode) and engineers at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and Cooper Union have stated on the record that it would make sense to check the heat systems in the other three buildings for contamination.

When will this be done? Why was it neglected in the first place?

5-B. Why has the smoke bomb test documentation (including both a video tape and a written report) been deemed unavailable to the public under the Freedom on Information Law?

6. The State University is attempting to recover from its insurance carriers certain losses relating to the New Paltz PCB contamination.

Do these insurance carriers know that the State University still has more than 425 PCB transformers in its buildings, including many PCB units in residence halls? Is the Dormitory Authority's carrier aware that there are students living in New Paltz residence halls where PCB transformers burned and exploded?

I have spoken with several attorneys in the environmental field about possible liability implications relating to these incidents. Have members of the SUNY Board of Trustees and/or officers of the State University who may possibly have had knowledge or **scienter******* about the possible SUNY non-compliance with EPA PCB transformer regulations been informed, or have their insurers been informed, of their potential individual liability in connection with ongoing or potential future litigation in the event that the state's insurers do not cover the damages?

7. On Dec. 4, 5, and 6, 1992, and on at least one other subsequent occasion, the contaminated Bliss Residence Hall was opened to former residents, their friends and their families to retrieve personal items from 50 dorm rooms (contents of the other 40 were reportedly sent to a toxic waste disposal site). None of the returned items were tested for contamination before being released to their owners, according to Dean Palen and state officials.

Instead, if wipe tests on hard surfaces in a room came up with "safe" levels of PCBs, then everything in the room was presumed to be clean. Palen said that no experiments whatsoever were performed to check whether, in the specific circumstances involved in each individual New Paltz building, this presumption was an actual indicator of the safety of permeable items that were returned (such as clothing and bedding). A number of authorities directly challenge the wisdom of this type of policy, saying that it is speculative and not scientific. Dr. Ward B. Stone characterized it as an "experiment" conducted on the students.

Furthermore, I have learned that when students, their relatives and their families entered Bliss Residence Hall, some parts of the building required "Level B" protection, which includes moonsuits and bottled air. I also learned while inspecting state documents located in the college library that just three weeks prior to the re-opening of Bliss Hall, air sampling there indicated the presence of dioxins and dibenzofurans in the air in a non-enclosed area in the building.

How was this whole scenario allowed to occur?

8. In Scudder Residence Hall, according to documents on file with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), contamination went so far beneath the building that excavation of contaminated soil was believed to be jeopardizing the integrity of the foundation. An undated memo on file with the DEC, apparently generated by Clean Harbors Inc., and an accompanying diagram of part of the Scudder Residence Hall basement, indicate extensive excavation beneath the structure. The diagram illustrates that six rooms, and apparently parts of several others (or sections of corridors), were removed for excavation. The memo states concern about the foundation's integrity prompted orders to halt work pending a new remediation plan, and indicated that contaminated soil would be left in the pit as a result. The area was reportedly enclosed in plywood and plastic barricades, and some 200 students were moved back into the building. None of the residents or parents with whom I have spoken were warned or informed about this situation by the administration.

Is it safe to have students living next to, and upstairs from, a toxic waste pit? On what information was the decision to do this based? One of the lessons of the Binghamton State Office Building fire was that "encapsulation" of PCB-, dioxin-, and dibenzofuran-contaminated areas does not work. Why is "encapsulation" being used in virtually every contaminated building in New Paltz?

9. A DEC engineer I interviewed said that demolition and removal of the transformer vault floors, and underground excavation of contaminated soil, was actually undertaken in five of the six buildings believed to have been affected by the Dec. 29, 1991 electrical accident -- all but Capen Residence Hall. This contamination went as deep as 12 feet beneath the building (in the case of Scudder) and 8 feet beneath the building (in the case of Parker Theater). Contamination also went so deep beneath Bliss Residence Hall that it reached a test well beneath the building. In Parker Theater, contamination levels up to 50,000 times the state's "safe" limit were found 2.5 feet deep into the concrete transformer vault floor, and samples up to 4,000 times the limit were found on stone 8 feet beneath the structure, according to documents on file with DEC.

How did such deep and massive contamination occur? What was the path of the PCBs? Given the unlikelihood that such massive contamination resulted or resulted solely from the Dec. 29, 1991 fires and explosions, how can state officials assure students, their families, and the New Paltz faculty and staff that other campus buildings or grounds do not bear similar contamination? What is being done to investigate this possibility?

10. It is known that dioxins, dibenzofurans and polychlorinated quaterphenyls are created when PCBs burn, explode, or are heated at high temperatures in the presence of air -- indeed, it has been known (at minimum) for nearly a quarter of a century. After the Dec. 29, 1991 incidents, no tests for these compounds were conducted inside the transformer vaults where fires and explosions occurred. Instead, the initial round of dioxin and furan testing consisted of taking 21 pre-cleanup samples from a variety of places in different buildings, though not in consistent locations in different buildings. For example, in varying buildings, samples were taken outside the vaults; in rooms far away from the vaults; or in other parts of the building. Inexplicably, some of these samples were sent solely to one lab, and other samples were sent solely to another lab; further, it appears that no "split samples" (defined under question 17) were utilized in this crucial, first series of dioxin/furan tests to confirm the comparative reliability and validity of each lab's testing results.

Such inconsistencies -- including samples taken from different places in different buildings, plus the absence of any testing whatsoever inside transformer vaults, plus the use of different labs in the absence of split sampling -- demonstrate that a highly unscientific method was utilized in searching for some extremely toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic compounds.

Why was such a palpably unscientific method used? Why weren't samples taken from inside the transformer vaults, or if they were taken, why weren't the results released to the public? If they exist, what are the test methods and results?

11. An air sample taken from inside Gage Residence Hall in early summer 1992 indicates that air from inside the building's elevator shaft came up positive for PCBs in levels up to 31.9 times the state's "safe" limit -- some five months after the building was re-opened to students as a full-time living environment. In addition, the test indicated that much of that elevator shaft contamination was attributable to a type of PCB manufactured by Monsanto called Aroclor 1242, rather than the Aroclor 1260 which was found most everywhere else on campus. Apart from the obvious issues raised by detecting this level of contamination in a structure that had been open and occupied for five months, the presence of different type of Aroclor (according to Dean Palen) indicates a second source of PCB contamination in the building. This type of source may be present in a great many buildings.

Has this source been identified and removed?

12. All of the New Paltz campus buildings that have been re-opened have included known contaminated areas that were supposedly "sealed off" from the public. Yet 12 years after the fire in the Binghamton State Office Building, that structure is still closed. For years, it remained sealed, according to state officials and press reports, because contamination could not be removed from the transformer vault area.

Why have college dormitories been opened as living environments on an "interim remediation," partly-contaminated bases, while the Binghamton State Office Building was closed for years due to low-level contamination in just one area?

13. State and county health officials, including Dean Palen, indicate that no post-cleanup testing or monitoring will be performed on any of the structures involved in the Dec. 29 incidents. Yet post-cleanup testing is a commonplace and common sense procedure to assure that buildings where deadly contaminants were released are in fact clean. Given the above-mentioned problems and inconsistencies, the chosen path of action -- not to test -- would seem to stem more from insecurity that the buildings are not really clean rather than from assurance that they in fact are clean.

Will post-clean-up monitoring be ordered in campus buildings? Will the fact that the state is facing approximately $73 million in litigation as a result of these incidents preclude the possibility of monitoring for toxins in re-opened buildings, since the documented presence of toxins in occupied buildings would provide plaintiffs with a potential "smoking gun"?

14. Dr. John Hawley, who is overseeing the cleanup for the state Department of Health (DOH), Dean Palen, and others directly and indirectly involved in this cleanup, are running the project on the presumption that there is a "safe" level of dioxin that can be left behind in buildings. In fact, Dr. Hawley is of the belief that dioxin is "less toxic than previously thought." In this respect, Dr. Hawley has picked up on one of the nascent assertions of the pulp and paper industry. In response, Dr. Arnold Schecter, regarded as one of the nation's foremost dioxin specialists, recently rejected such assertions as unsubstantiated. His view is shared by Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, also considered one of the nation's leading authorities on dioxin.

EPA's current position for all carcinogens is a presumption that there is no safe level for any of them, including dioxins, dibenzofurans and PCBs. It is well established that dioxin is one of the most powerful known carcinogens and teratogens. Further, for certain body responses, such as immune system suppression and birth defects, recent data even indicate that effective (dangerous) exposure levels are much lower than for cancer.

Why is SUNY New Paltz being cleaned under a presumption that some level of dioxin is safe?

15-A. In a letter to the Huguenot & Highland Herald explaining the dioxin and dibenzofuran cleanup policy for buildings on the New Paltz campus, published April 15, 1993, Dean Palen wrote that the cleanup criteria for these two chemical groups, "Reflect levels at which no adverse health effects have been documented and the risks of such effects are judged to be low."

He further states that, "The objective of the cleanup is to ensure that the level of exposure [is] so low that any associated risk is comparable to the risks that we are all exposed to in our daily lives from these compounds."

Looking at the first statement above, how is it possible for there to be "no adverse health effects" at the same time that the "risks of such [non-existent] effects are judged to be low?" How was it possible to calculate the (supposedly low) risks if the effect level of the chemical is unknown? How is it possible to have such a blurred policy on something with as clearly devastating effects as dioxin?

15-B. Regarding the second statement above under 15-A, I would call your attention to a report on dioxin by the Universities Association for Research and Education in Pathology (UAREP Inc.), which concludes, among other things, that the current body burden for dioxin in some members of the general population is as high as the level in animals which causes pathological reproductive effects. Mr. Palen states that New Paltz dormitories are being cleaned to a "level of exposure that [is] so low that any associated risk is comparable to the risks that we are all exposed to in our daily lives"

Is this suggesting that students living in Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls (and those women soon to live in Bliss Residence Hall) are getting double the exposure as the general population -- exposure once from their "daily lives," such as from eating contaminated food and breathing air pollution, and a second exposure from living in a building where the exposure is comparable to that level? Given the conclusion of the UAREP report, how can this be an acceptable public health policy?

15-C. In the currently accepted model of cancer risk assessment, known as the Linear Multistage Model (LMM), the concept of "risk" literally means "incidence." Therefore, to say that there is a "low risk" of cancer from living in a contaminated dormitory is to say, in effect, that only a few people will get cancer from living there. In cancer risk assessment, the idea of risk is applied to the probability of an existing danger and indicates the actual presence of that danger (i.e., known carcinogens).

Does a policy of allowing "acceptable levels" of contamination mean that there are also acceptable levels of cancer incidence? Is the state willing to inform these dormitory residents that they are being exposed to this "risk"? If the students knew their lives were being gambled with, would they voluntarily be willing to live in Bliss, Capen, Gage, and Scudder residence halls?

16. There is concern among members of the campus community that outside areas on the campus may be contaminated. This belief seems to arise from several incidents, including water main breaks in Coykendall Sciences Building and Parker Theater that released toxins to the outer environment. Based on my reporting, the largest and most concentrated single release of toxins to the outside environment involved the explosion of the former transformer in Bliss Residence Hall, which contained about 1200 pounds, or 100 gallons, of Aroclor 1260 PCB oil diluted with chlorinated benzene. A witness at close range to the explosion described a massive cloud of black soot rising over the building immediately following the blast. Several other buildings released toxic smoke and gases to the outside atmosphere, which, being heavy, chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds, are likely to have settled in the vicinities of where they were released.

Will comprehensive and widespread soil, water and air samples be taken to determine whether students, faculty, staff and visitors are being exposed to toxins just by walking around on campus? Will visitors and the campus community be warned about this possibility?

17. In the aftermath of a 1986 chemical fire at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, students with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) who investigated the cleanup and testing discovered a great number of inconsistencies, unscientific procedures and apparently fraudulent testing. My discussions with two of those individuals indicate that it took a great deal of effort for NYPIRG, the student governments and the unions to pressure the state to implement testing policies which made sense -- such as multi-lateral observation of sampling, a multi-lateral chain of custody, split sampling and other procedures to ensure that honest sampling and testing were actually performed.

At the New Paltz site, there is, in fact, no independent direct oversight of any kind, despite the fact that the County Department of Health and Clean Harbors Inc. both represent themselves as "independent." Both entities, in fact, have been operating in this matter as arms of state government.

Any suspicion that the state's tests are not accurate could be allayed by a procedure known as split sampling. By split sampling, I mean taking samples obtained in the same manner in the same area (or, literally, splitting a sample of solid material in half) and sending the samples to two independent labs, each of which is unaware of the work of the other. Combined with multi-lateral observation of sampling and shipping of samples, this would be a conservative and reasonable approach to the issue of test assurance.

Will the state be willing to cooperate with multi-lateral observation of sampling, blind split sampling at truly independent labs, and other protocols to ensure honest, diligent sampling, cleanup and remediation?

18. Is there not a conflict of interest with the State of New York being the "responsible party" for the spill under EPA guidelines, being responsible for paying for the cleanup, being potentially liable for damages in litigation, and solely determining which areas of the campus are "safe"?

19. Finally, one of the most disturbing facts about the New Paltz PCB fires was that volunteer firefighters entered PCB smoke-flooded Gage Residence Hall searching for students without proper protection and without knowledge that they were entering a PCB situation. The college took nearly one hour to investigate the emerging electrical crisis prior to calling the fire department for help, and should have known that Gage Hall was not occupied during the winter break. In that hour, records could easily have been accessed and the fire department warned. It was not until a firefighter who happened to be an electrician arrived at the scene and smelled the smoke, and knew that it was PCBs, that the volunteers were called out of the building -- at the peril of two other firefighters who went in to get them. At least three of the firefighters involved reportedly developed rashes or chloracne one day after the fire, a type of skin condition characteristic of PCB or dioxin contamination. Sander Orent, the medical director for the Occupational Health and Environmental Medical Center at St. Francis Hospital, is quoted in the Jan. 16, 1992 Poughkeepsie Journal as saying, "Generally, it takes a very significant dose of PCBs" for a person to develop chloracne.

What measures will be taken to notify fire departments across the state of the exact locations of PCB equipment in their primary and mutual aid fire districts?


In seeking my own answers to these questions, I have attempted to get to the roots of state policy and to question any assumptions that I come across, including my own. I think it is important to note that my efforts to gain answers to these questions have been inhibited by the SUNY New Paltz administration, which is not returning my telephone calls and which previously informed me that it is college policy not to discuss the PCB crisis with me. The college controls access to its contractors, which include not only Clean Harbors, but also the on-site managers, the state Office of General Services (OGS). Neither entity will comment to me on the cleanup due to the SUNY gag order.

The ability to have informed discussions with the technical people involved in the project is a very important part of keeping the public informed about the cleanup.

The only conclusion one can draw from a gag order imposed on a public health crisis is that the state is viewing it more as a public relations crisis. What is there to hide?

What is perhaps of more concern than attempted secrecy, though, is a fact that I learned from reading a Jan. 31, 1993 New York Times article about my own coverage of this story: that "some officials refuse to read his articles, they dislike him so." These public officials, whoever they are, may not like what they read; they may have their own interpretation of the facts; but that is no excuse for failing to keep up with the press coverage on an issue so central to their work. Much of this letter has been based on the content of the very articles that these officials reportedly refuse to read.

Part of the reason these officials can evade the basic responsibility of keeping informed is because there are so many constraints against members of the public raising informed questions. The next constraint is simply that people trust state health officials (most students are too young to know the Love Canal story). Another constraint is that ignorance about the issues among people in the dormitories is highly prevalent (and keeping the public in the dark with a press blackout can be construed as perpetuating this state of affairs). At this time, there is no organized effort to inform residents of Capen, Gage and Scudder residence halls about the inconsistencies, questions and problems with the testing and remediation of their living areas -- yet these students and their parents are readily assured by state officials and college Residence Life employees that everything is fine.

Most 17-, 18-, and 19-year old students lack any semblance of knowledge about the toxicity of PCBs or their pyrolytic by-products. Accordingly, they simply do not have a base of knowledge with which to evaluate the consequences of fires and explosions that occurred, or to question the purported cleanup policies that have been followed by the state.

At the same time, many of the parents of these students with whom I have spoken have expressed profound concerns about the situation on campus and the safety of their sons and daughters. They have also expressed how frustrating it is to get clear information and straight answers from SUNY officials. And while concerned parents may be telling their sons and daughters in one ear that there's a problem, the college and their friends are telling them, in the other ear, not to worry.

Superimposed over all of this is the fact that many people in a position to ask questions, and whose questions might be listened to , are afraid to voice their fears and suspicions for a variety of reasons, including fear of losing their jobs (which basically translates into fear of revenge form the administration). Even tenured faculty members feel very reluctant to speak out. Seeking an answer for why this is, I have heard repeated the fear that a real investigation into the New Paltz situation would, in some peoples' opinion, result in the closure of the entire campus. Ironically, this was a possibility that I hadn't even considered until I heard it voiced several times from different members of the campus community.

Students who attend the State University of New York do so as an act of trust that their well-being is on the minds of administrators and other state officials. They come to SUNY to get an education, not to get cancer. Real answers to what appear to be very real questions are the only way I can imagine the state would be deserving of any trust, and the only way to assure the health and safety of thousands of students, faculty, staff members, guests and visitors who pass through the SUNY New Paltz campus every year.

Thank you for your assistance and your concern about this issue, Mr. Cahill.

Eric Francis

1. Rachel's Hazardous Waste News Nos. 327 and 329
2. "Nevada Power Says it Was Deceived by PCB Makers," series from the Las Vegas Sun, 3/28 ­ 2/30, 1993
3. "Uphill Fight: Raking Much On Campus," the New York Times, 1/31/93

copies: Brian Anglin, Editor, The Huguenot & Highland Herald
Steven R. Faber, Esq.
James Luckner, PE

Toi Lynette Carter, President, SUNY New Paltz Student Association
Matthew Chetnik, President, SUNY New Paltz Residence Hall Student Association
SUNY New Paltz Dormitory Association Presidents
Cindy Herrschaft, Editor in Chief, The Oracle student newspaper
Yolanda Ervin, Editor in Chief, Fahari student newspaper
Allicette Torres, Editor in Chief, Hermanos Latinos student newspaper
Stephanie Salsberg, General Manager, WFNP-FM Radio
Jay Bloom, United University Professions (UUP)
Diane Luchese, Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA)
New Paltz Mayor Tom Nyquist
New Paltz Town Supervisor David Lent
David Weeks, Chief, New Paltz Fire Department
Dennis Zappone, Chief, New Paltz Police Department

Vice President Al Gore
U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey
U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter
Gov. Mario M. Cuomo
Kenneth P. LaValle, Chair, Senate Committee on Higher Education
Edward C. Sullivan, Chair, Assembly Committee on Higher Education
Owen H. Johnson, Chair, Senate Environmental Conservation Committee
Richard Brodsky, Chair, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee
Lyn Bauer, Member of the Ulster County Legislator
Gerald Benjiman, Chair, Ulster County Legislature
Members of the Ulster County Legislature

Dr. D. Bruce Johnstone, SUNY Chancellor
Sanford H. Levine, Esq., SUNY Counsel
Members of the SUNY Board of Trustees (In Care of Martha J. Downy)
Dr. Alice Chandler, SUNY New Paltz College President
Members of the SUNY New Paltz College Council (In Care of Gail Gallerie)
Jason R.I. Black, Past President, New Paltz Student Association
Glenn Magpantay, President, Student Association of the State University (SASU)
Beth Falvo, President, SUNY Student Assembly

Dean N. Palen, MBA, PE, Ulster County Department of Health (UC DOH)
Dr. M. Ansari, Commissioner, UC DOH
Dr. John Hawley, NYS DOH
Kristine Edwards, PE, NYS Office of General Services (OGS)
Thomas Jorling, Commissioner, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC)
Ralph Manna, Regional Director, Region 3, NYS DEC
Daniel Kraft, EPA Enforcement Division
Mick Harrison, Government Accountability Project / EPA Watch

Richard Goldstein, Executive Editor, The Village Voice
Sandy Thompson, Managing Editor, Las Vegas Sun
Ellen & Dr. Paul Connett, Waste Not/ / Work on Waste USA
Dr. Peter Montague, Rachel's Hazardous Waste News
Jay Halfon, Executive Director, NYPIRG
Larry Shapiro, Esq., NYPIRG (Central)
Ted Feng, NYPIRG (SUNY New Paltz)
Peter Shipley, University Fiscal Action Committee
Dr. Ward B. Stone, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)
Dr. Arnold Schecter, SUNY Clinical Campus, Binghamton
Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
Tom Webster, Center for the Biology of Natural Systems
Fred Munson, Greenpeace
Tara Gilmartin, National Toxics Campaign
Lois Gibbs, Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (CCHW)
Bridgett Barclay, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater
Ann Rabe, Citizens' Environmental Coalition
Justin Lowe, Earth Island Institute
Debra Chasnoff
Michael H. Sussman, Esq.