Statement to the Media and the Campus Community

March 3, 2004 -- By Eric Francis Coppolino

My name is Eric Francis Coppolino. I am a writer for Chronogram magazine and I own a publishing company called Planet Waves. I lived in this valley many years and consider it my home.

In December 1991, this campus was the scene of a miracle. When six PCB transformers burned and exploded, the campus was closed. While 12 students were exposed to toxins, nearly a thousand who live in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls were away on winter break.

But this miracle was squandered.

370 residents of Gage Hall and 190 residents of Capen Hall were returned to their dorm rooms just one month after the accident. Many people questioned the wisdom of this at the time, and for the next three years, I set about documenting the extent of the problem: how the buildings were certified clean because they were not tested. Vents were not tested. Radiators were not tested. And even when the state discovered that heat and vents had been routs of contamination spread, nobody tested Capen or Gage.

At that time and every day since, I have been deeply concerned about the safety of these buildings. The current residents were 6 or 7 years old when I began work on this story and they are why I have kept at it so long.

In 1993, working for Woodstock Times, I took a sample from a Gage Hall vent and found that the greasy sediment contained 100 parts per million PCBs. The state said this was insignificant and meaningless. They said there was "no evidence of contamination." Then the following month, the Gage vents were secretly tested by the state. Contamination was found throughout the vents. It was cleaned "to the arm's length." Parents were told the building had been cleaned. A cleanup deeper inside the vents was promised and documented in state records, but the work was never done.

On the morning of Feb. 12, 2004, I went into Capen and Gage halls and, with student witnesses, took samples from the heat, the vents and other areas of the buildings. I had these samples analyzed at an independent laboratory at my own expense. All seven samples showed contamination. The Gage vent that was cleaned in 1994 came up at nearly the same level of contamination -- 80 parts per million.

50 parts per million is the threshold at which something is considered pure PCBs by the federal government.

As recently as two weeks ago, the campus was making blanket assurances of safety. They cannot make these assurances because they do not understand the extent of contamination. Words will not solve this problem and it will not go away by itself.

I found 22 parts per million of PCBs in a Capen Hall vent above a clothes drier. I found contamination in a Capen radiator, as far from the transformer as you can get in the basement.

I found it in a Gage radiator. I found contamination in a ceiling tile in the same Gage lounge where I pulled the vent sample, and in sediment in the basement. I found contamination on electrical wires in Capen Hall. In short, everywhere I looked, I found contamination.

I am not here to say that this is safe or not safe, though few people who understand PCBs and dioxins would say that it is. I am saying that these buildings need to be thoroughly tested to determine the real extent of PCB contamination. These buildings are not declared safe on the basis that PCBs are safe. They are declared safe on the basis that they are clean.

But Capen and Gage halls are anything but clean. Nobody should find 80 parts per million PCBs in a student lounge, or in any inhabited building. Nobody should find contaminated dust in an exhaust vent in a laundry room. Those PCBs are coming from somewhere.

The state says these buildings are clean. Their tests show "non detectable" levels. I found PCBs everywhere.

We need to ask not merely, who has the power to fix this? We need to ask who has the ethical strength to take action. Who can admit that they care enough to be honest and take care of the problem?

It is easy to think of this as a political issue, but it is not. It's not about money. It's about the safety of students who live in these buildings, most of whom have no idea that there was even an incident. Nobody tells them; most parents are unaware; the story is considered a non-issue.

But this is an issue -- if we care about the lives of students in these buildings. It's an issue if we care about their children, who can be damaged by these chemicals. It is if we care about leukemia, about immune suppression, about endometriosis and the many other illnesses that come from exposure to dioxin-like compounds.

In an editorial in early 1992, I described the New Paltz dormitories as an uncontrolled experiment on students. Students who live in these buildings deserve better than this. They are not laboratory rats. They are people. They and their families deserve better.

Thank you for your attention. I will take any questions you have.

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