Planet Waves | PCBs and the Freedom of Information Law


When in doubt... use the FOIL

Introductory note... much of my research on the SUNY New Paltz PCB disaster was facilitated by the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL, or the federal FOIA), a law existing in most states which allows the public access to many government documents. Public officials sometimes drag their feet, kick, scream, lie and try to fuck up your day. This makes using the FOIL quite a game. But if you have six months to a year, you can get just about anything you need, as long as you know it exists, and sometimes even if you don't.

In celebreation of the 10th anniversary of the PCB disaster at SUNY New Paltz, thought I would post this FOIL letter, written about a year into the investigation, to the records access officer of the college, as a kind of wrinkle-in-time document. This particular request, filed with what was by far the most belligerent state agency among the many I had to deal with -- the college itself -- was denied based on some lame excuses, but I had the basic information I needed to prove that the heat system in Bliss had been a pathway for contamination, and that as a result Capen, Gage and Scudder should have been tested before being reoccupied. All four buildings are basically identical and had PCB release events occur in them.

I was never able to get testing of the heat systems in those buildings, but was ultimately able to nail that the Bliss heat was a problem and also prove that the vents were a pathway for the spread of contamination in Gage Hall and had not been tested or cleaned properly. So, note the game. Smoke spreads in all the buildings. The heat in one building is contaminated, better not check the others. The vents in two buildings are contaminated, better not check the others. The electrical conduits are contaminated in two buildings, better not check the others. The form below is a pretty good FOIL letter, in case you need to see how it's done. You address it to the Records Access Officer of an agency, who you can identify with a phone call. This introduction written November 2001. Above, toxic waste drums litter the New Paltz campus.

Investigative Reporter
New Paltz, New York 12561-0255

Jan. 25, 1993

Records Access Officer
State University of New York
College at New Paltz
Office of Institutional Advancement
New Paltz, New York 12561

Dear Karen:

Pursuant to the state Freedom of Information Law (FOIL), the state Public Officer's Law and other relevant statutes, I am making the following request for information relating to the SUNY New Paltz polychlorinated biphenyl, dioxin and dibenzofuran contamination of Dec. 29, 1991. Due to the grave and far-reaching nature of the New Paltz contamination, I would urge you to expedite this request.


In reports prepared by Mr. Thomas Kelly or other employees of Clean Harbors, which are sent to Lindo Signorelli (SUNY) and Kristine Edwards (OGS), then subsequently sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region II and cc'ed to I. Freedman, M. Ellerman, J. Grant, K. Edwards, T. Kelly, et. al., repeated references are made to the Bliss Hall smoke bomb test. These reports, obtained from SUNY Central yesterday under the FOIL, make reference a final report on the smoke bomb test, which is a supporting and elaborating document to documents already obtained under the FOIL. Under the FOIL, supporting documents are clearly intended to be accessible to the public, and as Records Access Officer, you have a statutory obligation to provide them to the public.

With this in mind, I am again requesting a copy of the final smoke bomb test report, possibly dated June 3, 1992; and the supporting video tape the existence of which I was informed of by Dr. John Hawley of the State Dept. of Health; and any other documents which may in any way provide explanation, additional information, reference to, or details about, the smoke bomb testing that was done in Bliss Hall.

I would stress the serious potential health impact of a potentially life and death nature that this information may have on the future residents of Bliss Hall, as well as current residents similar campus buildings in which no smoke bomb test was done and which may have similar, and potentially contaminated, HVAC [heating, venting, air conditioning] systems.

You should be aware that I have already described the smoke bomb test report and video tape to Mr. Robert Freeman of the Department of State, Committee on Open Government, and in his opinion, he sees "no lawful basis" for preventing public access to these documents as described.

Please be aware that parallel FOIL and federal FOIA requests for this information are being forwarded to the state DOH, the Ulster County DOH, the SUNY Central Administration and EPA. Please be further advised that due to the potential life and death nature of this matter, I intend to take legal action to obtain these documents if they are not provided to me complete and in a timely fashion. It is my feeling that your failure to promtly provide these ducoments upon the first request constituted a lack of good faith, and a failure of the institution to follow the spirit, if not the letter, of the Freedom of Information Law.


On several occasions I have discussed with SUNY administrators the existence of test wells on the New Paltz campus that were installed in 1992 to check for underground contamination. References to these test wells are made in the weekly progress reports sent to Edwards, Signorelli, officials at EPA region II, et. al., and therefore, the results constitute supporting data to information and/or conclusions referenced in other documents obtained under FOIL.

Please furnish me with access to any and all information regarding these test wells, including the dates of installation, the dimensions (depths, widths, etc.), the costs of installation, their precise locations, and the results of any and all PCB and/or dioxin and/or furan and/or other contamination tests on water and/or soil and/or stone and/or or any other material and/or equipment directly and/or indirectly related to the test wells on the New Paltz campus.

Please be aware that parallel FOIL and federal FOIA requests for this information are being forwarded to the state DOH, the Ulster County DOH, the SUNY Central Administration and EPA.

Thank you for your assistance, Karen.

Very truly yours,

for the Huguenot Herald

Copies sent to my editors and attorneys:

S. Faber Esq.
M. Sussman Esq.
B. Anglin, Herald
R. Freeman, NYS DOS
C. Herrschaft, Oracle

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