Planet Waves | PCB Photo Tour of SUNY New Paltz in 1991-1992, page one


A photo tour of the State University of New York (SUNY)
College at New Paltz in December 1991 and early 1992
after a disaster involving polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins

Photos by Eric Francis | Student Leader News Service (SLNS),
an independent, off-campus news service serving student
newspapers, state government and the professional media.

Reporting by Eric, Ian McGowan, Jesse Welch and Peter Shipley

Text below by Eric, writen November 2000 and revised November 2001.

On Monday morning, Dec. 30, 1992, I set out on the three-block walk from the Student Leader News Service office in New Paltz with city editor Ian McGowan, headed for the college's first official news conference after the prior day's PCB explosions on the campus. Ian and I had visited a lot of strangeness together in the course of our reporting, but what we would soon discover on the New Paltz campus was beyond compare. As we approached Bliss Hall, above, we saw the first sign that something was wrong. We had been following events from our office for the past 24 hours. Two hundred emergency personnel, from state police to the Red Cross to the hazardous materials teams from IBM in Fishkill had responded to the prior day's electrical fires and explosions. About 25 people were taken to area hospitals for contamination.


A Westinghouse electrical transformer containing 100 gallons of polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) insultation fluid had malfunctioned after a car accident two miles from the campus damaged power lines. Electrical arcing -- a major malfunction consisting of a lightning bolt of current running through the "fireproof" fluid -- had caused the creation of highly flammable phosgene gas within the airtight container, and exploded with sufficient force to blow out the louvres and blow off the back door of the dormitory. We did not know it at the time but the toxins levels inside the Bliss transformer room were later rated at one million times the state's acceptable limit for PCB contamination. Of course dioxins were also created in the building and found as high as the third floor. Smoke surging through the building contaminated heat and ventilation systems. The miracle is that because this happened right before New Year's eve, there were no students in the all-women's dormitory at the time. Any students on camous staying through the holidays had been housed in Capen Hall across the quadrangle, where what seems to have been the least severe fire occurred. About a dozen students in Capen were evaculated through a thick haze of sickly sweet-smelling PCB and dioxin-laced smoke, which moved throughout the building.


When I returned to Bliss Hall a week later, this is what I saw. Needless to say, this is a strange sight in your own neighborhood. The workers are wearing what is called level B protection. You can tell because they are wearing air tanks. With the only higher level, level A, the air tanks are concealed inside the Tyvek suits; level C consists of Tyvek and HEPA filters like the man on the right, apparently a supervisor, is wearing. It is rare for haz-mat workers to wear level B out-of-doors where there is a natural supply of fresh air, particularly in cold weather (where they do not need the cooer air provided by the tanks). Toxins levels must be extremely high to require level B outside. The tree in the background and another, not in the photo, to the left, were taken to a toxic waste landfill, along with student property in half the building (the rest of the student property was returned without cleaning). Heaters were eventually cleaned and the vents were changed, though toxins remained in the building when it was opened to students just one year later. Excavation beneath the building went down about 10 feet and toxins began to spread through the ground water in the Earth far below. But we're ahead of ourselves here -- the next page's photos continue with what we witnessed Dec. 30, 1992, the day after the fires and explosions.

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