Planet Waves | Toxic Casino by Eric Francis | SUNY New Paltz PCBs


The Toxic Casino
Planet Waves 12/01 |
By Eric Francis

There was a serious electrical accident on the SUNY New Paltz campus back in 1991, in which power equipment burned and exploded, contaminating six buildings and many outside areas with PCBs and dioxins. A decade later, it's still dangerous.

Men and women of SUNY New Paltz, ladies and gentlemen of the community, staff, faculty, and public relations specialists of the college, and other esteemed readers, I am back with my annual PCB rant. I vowed long ago to make known the toxic situation in Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder dormitories, and Parker Theater and the Coykendall Science Building, at least once per year. This would hopefully ensure that every student heard about it once, if only by rumor and innuendo, which could be easily confirmed by a quick search in the nifty search engine by typing in "New Paltz PCBs" and following the links.

In summary, as I have reported about 150 previous times in newspapers, magazines, on TV and radio from sea to shining sea, and points abroad: There was a serious electrical accident on the SUNY New Paltz campus back in 1991, in which power equipment burned and exploded, contaminating six buildings and many outside areas with PCBs and dioxins. There was a very expensive cleanup, costing between $50 million and $65 million, but the remediation project was deeply flawed. Many places were left untested, important places like vent systems and heat systems. Chemicals were not checked for, contamination was found in long-occupied "clean" buildings, and students and their parents have been repeatedly lied to. Worst of all, the scientific data used to declare the buildings safe was based on ancient research a quarter-century (or more) old that completely hides how dangerous exposure to supposedly low levels of PCBs and dioxins is.

It's part of the story that the journalist covering this all was arrested and kicked off the campus. But he found a fine lawyer and sued in federal court; the judge saw what was going on, he was allowed back on campus and was paid a $20,000 settlement by New York State for having his civil rights violated. This money he promptly applied to continuing research and investigation, a process that was in full gear up to late 2000. This is all, as they say, history.

But the PCBs themselves are current events because they never go away. Once they contaminate a space, it's impossible to remove them. The levels can be lowered, but if you look at real, modern science, you learn that there is in fact no "no effect" level: Any exposure level to these toxins, no matter how low, will make some people sick.

Nobody can predict who will get sick or how many people will get sick, or how soon they will get sick. The contamination might affect people as immune suppression now, allowing infections to run freely in your body. Or it might manifest as breast cancer in 2019. Or, nothing at all might happen, or, you might get another exposure from somewhere else in 2008 which would have been harmless had you not lived in Capen Hall for a year. You might smoke, which would add to the problem; you might not, which would be good in any case; you might have a genetic predisposition to cancer, you might not. You might live in a room with a hot spot and contract leukemia in two years. You might get dosed only when you are taking a shower.

Welcome to the Toxic Casino of SUNY New Paltz, where everybody wins a little, and some people hit the jackpot. I was in Reno, Nevada a couple of months ago. On the same day I hit the jackpot in a slot machine, three hours later, I drew four aces in a poker machine, the third highest win possible. The odds against both of these events happening within a few hours are astronomically high. I would not want to do so well in the Toxic Casino, but some people undoubtedly will.

Jennifer Folster was one such person. Jennifer lived in the basement of Capen Hall in 1992. She died one year ago of a form of leukemia associated with environmental toxic exposure, and believed that her time in Capen Hall was responsible for her death. I spoke to her while she was living there, and warned her. She said, years later, that she did not want to move out simply because she was overwhelmed, and was afraid to approach her parents.

Now, don't worry if you think this all sounds too weird to be true. There are college administrators and county health officials who are reading this article, shaking their heads, and faxing it to their bosses up in Albany. They are saying yep, he's at it again, being an alarmist, frightening students and making everything worse. You would think that after 10 freaking years, he would finally give it up. Some of these public officials are consoled that at least I'm writing about this in an astrology column, which means they can assure themselves that few people will believe me, and hope for the best. They will hope that I don't hit the jackpot one fine year, and convince, say, 20 people that there is a problem. If 20 people believed there is a problem and half of them did something about it, Bliss, Capen, Gage and Scudder halls would be closed down for proper cleaning and testing.

I forgot to mention the 10-freaking-year part: the initial explosions happened December 29, 1991, a full decade ago. Personally I can't decide if that gloomy winter morning feels like yesterday, or like another lifetime. I recognize that if you are 18 today, I'm talking about something that happened when you were about eight years old. But think of it this way. In 10 more years, when I am still writing about this, and after about 10,000 more students have been exposed to super-toxic poisons, I will say, "I realize this happened before you were born, but it wasn't that long ago. Dioxin is a little like radiation in that you can't get rid of it. It lasts a long time, in a building and in your body."

Now, after 10 more years, why will those 10,000 students have been exposed? If it happens, it will be because you did nothing to protect them. Why are you being exposed now? Because students who were fully aware of the crisis 10 years ago did nothing to protect you. They either ignored the whole issue, worried and did nothing, or moved out. Very few have cared enough to even bother taking care of their own skins, choosing to lay their bets on the most interesting and deadly game of roulette I've ever heard of. Next to none have cared enough to actually assist in the process, though there have been a few noteworthy ones. The most helpful to date was Jennifer Folster, in her last months.

What we really need to look at is why the danger at SUNY New Paltz is so difficult to believe is real, in spite of enormous actual documented evidence that there is a problem. It's difficult to believe partly because nobody seems to care. Faculty members will not speak up, and never have, but they have always said that if the real danger were established, the campus would be closed. Administrators, for their part, make the "blue wall" like when a cop kills somebody and nobody wants to rat anyone out. It is partly because state bureaucrats, who understand how you think better than you understand how you think, and, quite frankly, better than I understand how you think, have created what looks like evidence that the buildings are safe. They might even believe it.

So, now for the real question: What do you do if you think there might be a problem? Start by reading the articles which are now linked directly from my homepage,, and get clear about what the problem is.

Then, send your parents the links, and call them (that's what college students seem to do these days-call mom and dad; there was a time when they used to throw rocks). Tell them you want out, that you're not willing to take any chances no matter what anybody says. Then, go to the housing office and tell them to move you. It's not your problem if everybody else wants to move, and besides, few people care enough to bother. Demand a safe room where no PCB accident happened. Where is safe? In my opinion, off campus, Shango, Bouton, College Hall, and that new residence hall out on the Tripping Fields. (The Hasbrouck Complex has other problems.) Don't take no for an answer. If they hassle you, threaten to sue. They will kiss your ass.

I will leave you for this year with a few words from Jennifer Folster, spoken just prior to her death. Jennifer, who said she was at peace with the fact that she was in the late stages of terminal illness, appealed to New Paltz students living in the four dormitories to "get out and insist that they are cleaned. Ultimately it's your choice."

Then, you can be sure you'll never win the grand prize at the Toxic Casino.

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