13 June 2007

From Chicken Fried Rice to Dioxin

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Palen 2007

Ulster County Health Commissioner Dean Palen. Photo by Eric Francis.

IN THE summer of 1994, something called Woodstock ‘94 came to sleepy little Ulster County. This was the 25th anniversary concert of the original famed Aquarian Exposition of 1969. The dramatic events had unfolded in the next county over from Woodstock’s, even sleepier Sullivan County in the town of Bethel. (Woodstock’s name was spirited for the festival, and as a result is now one of the most recognized trademarks in the world. So much for counterculture.)

About a quarter-million people and 30 bands and their entourages were expected in Saugerties for the three-day event August 12, 13 and 14, 1994, which transformed the Winston Farm into a kind of mud-drenched refugee camp with entertainment, then into a convincing imitation of a garbage dump. The festival was about 40 minutes away from SUNY New Paltz, if you followed the speed limit. And it was scheduled for just prior to the New Paltz dorms re-opening for the fall semester.

Dean N. Palen was the acting Ulster County health commissioner that summer (he is now the longtime health commissioner). His boss, Masood Ansari, had just died spontaneously, leaving him with all the work. Up to that point, Palen’s title was “Director of Environmental Sanitation.” His regular job was to sign the letter saying your Chinese restaurant is clean enough to serve the public, hence, he was assigned to the Woodstock ‘94 festival site to make sure that everything was copacetic—that the falafel stands and the porta-potties were all in good order, and so on.

He had also signed every letter re-opening the contaminated SUNY New Paltz dorms and academic buildings from 1992 to the present time. Palen is not a doctor, toxicologist or engineer; he is not a chemist; he has a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). Somehow, he got mixed up in one of the biggest indoor dioxin and PCB cleanups in history. (I don’t know of a more complicated, or more expensive one; the New Paltz cleanup included several buildings in very bad shape that I have not yet named in this series.)

If it seems odd that the same guy should be left in charge of PCBs, dioxins and chicken fried rice, let’s consider the state bureaucracy a bit. The State of New York has its own centralized Department of Health, NYS-DOH, also called DOH. To get the true vibration of DOH, you need to imagine Homer Simpson saying it.

DOH has very few people on the ground in local areas; it’s mainly a bunch of offices in Albany filled to the brim with bureaucrats, one of whom we will soon meet. Its field operations are handled by the various county health departments around the state, such as the one that Dean Palen was now presiding over. In theory, he did not kneed to know much about PCBs and dioxins to handle oversight for the cleanup; DOH would provide the “expertise” for this part of the job. And DOH had plenty of experience with these chemicals. For one thing, two huge (now closed) General Electric PCB manufacturing plants were located in the state, in Hudson Falls and Fort Edwards. A lot of people had been contaminated at those plants, along with the Hudson River and the Long Island Sound.

DOH was also 100% involved in the debacle at something called the Binghamton State Office Building (the BSOB), where a PCB transformer fire in a state office tower did about $20 million damage in 1981, 10 years before New Paltz. When New Paltz popped, the BSOB was still closed and still contaminated; they could not get the place clean, and they didn’t understand why they could not get it clean. The PCBs and their fire-created by-products, dioxins, kept reappearing, particularly in the warm weather. So when New Paltz happened, the DOH boys were sort of ready; at least they had some practice. And it turned out that in that great cosmic lottery known as life, Dean Palen got to oversee the cleanup on behalf of the State of New York.

No doubt Palen’s gurus at DOH told him some of what to do, and no doubt he had some latitude. Now, here is what happened when I had my sample in a jar, taken from an air vent over a stove more than two years after the dormitory had been reoccupied under the authority of Palen’s signature. I called all the key players, including Palen, the college and the college’s cleanup contractor, as well as officials at the state Department of Health. I faxed everyone the results from the lab, so they had them on paper.

Palen and the college went silent. I called several times a day and they did not return a single call. (At this point it was the college’s policy not to talk to me, so I was not expecting a miracle.) As for Palen, what could he say? As for the cleanup contractor, a company called Clean Harbors, Inc., their spokesman, William Geary, commented in the July 21, 1994 Woodstock Times, “It’s not anything we would respond to.” I was impressed that he said that much.

Dr. John Hawley was the state’s official PCB and dioxin guru at DOH. His job was to help Palen, and to talk to me, among other things. I had talked to him about 10 times up to that point. He was not returning calls, either, which was unusual. It was clear that the state had drawn the wagons in a circle and that the different agencies involved in the cleanup were figuring out how to handle this issue.

This seemed natural enough. They had all sworn on a stack of Bibles, Korans the local phone book that the buildings were safe and that the vents were clean. But they had not even tested the vents; then they were confronted with this rather high test result taken directly from a vent.

Finally, nearly a week later, Hawley answered his phone. I asked him if he planned to finally test all the vents in Gage Hall, now that we had a hit of 100,000 parts per billion in a vent in a student lounge.

“I don’t think there’s any need to,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any evidence of contamination.”

No evidence of contamination? That’s exactly what I had. He had the paperwork right in front of him. I asked him what would constitute evidence of contamination, except for a PCB hit that said the vent was contaminated.

“I’m not going to speculate,” he said.

I was not expecting this response. I actually felt the room tip over a little bit, as my mind tried to reconcile this. It then occurred to me I was talking with someone totally out of touch with reality. In the anti-pesticide movement, this kind of public or corporate official has a name: nozzlehead. Basically, they are the person who says, “Poison is good for you. I would drink the stuff.”

Palen, for his part, was a little more creative. When I finally got him on the phone, he claimed the contamination came from something other than the transformer explosion—for example, from some odd cleaning product used prior to the PCB ban in 1976, or maybe from a leaky florescent light ballast (two possible but unlikely sources), contamination from which had supposedly escaped detection on what the college was claiming was the most PCB-free campus in the world.

I paraphrased him in my Aug. 3 article for the Huguenot Herald, the Woodstock Times’ sister paper in New Paltz: “Palen said he believed it was possible that the chemicals may have lodged in the duct before the Gage Hall transformer explosion, or after it.”

He wanted to skip the obvious possibility that they got there from the 1991 incident. The student lounge was right next to the transformer room where a PCB unit had burned, exploded and flooded the entire building with greasy, toxic smoke. But, Palen speculated, the PCBs got into the vent another way—who knows, maybe from some chicken fried rice.

While Palen was telling me this, he was busy behind the scenes, quietly ordering some tests of his own. I guess curiosity had got the best of him. In Gage Hall, there are 39 vent outlets. He did the right thing. He tested them all. He even got in his car and drove all the way from the impending scene of Woodstock ‘94 to supervise.

He discovered the following. Every vent outlet in Gage Hall except for one was contaminated. Fully 33 of the samples failed the state’s cleanup criteria, taken from in places like shower stalls, toilet stalls, lounges and cleaning closets. Three of them failed the federal criteria as well, 10 times less stringent than the state’s target levels. Two others were just a little contaminated. Somehow one lonely vent had escaped the haze of toxic smoke that had soaked the entire building. end article

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