WARD STONE is just about the only good part of this story, the other being my then-editor at Woodstock Times, Parry Teasdale, who got it into print. Ward was and still is the wildlife pathologist for the State of New York, which puts him in a position to deal with crucial public health issues.
He is a burly, handsome guy who always seems to be laughing at life, though he sees more death and devastation than most people would dare to imagine. When the electrical disaster occurred at SUNY New Paltz in late 1991, I was advised to contact Ward, and that is how I met him. He is an official with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) at its campus in Delmar, NY, near Albany. But everyone agrees, he’s a very odd duck for a state guy, and for a long time it seemed like somebody was constantly trying to get him fired because he was so effective at finding poisons and costing the state a fortune, forcing them to clean them up.
Usually a wildlife pathologist deals with biological issues such as rabies or West Nile virus, but it was Ward who had first published his findings in the early 1970s that PCBs were leaking from transformers and had contaminated the soil at the bottom of utility poles, where the public could come in contact with the stuff. This original discovery put him on the map as the PCB avenger in a time when the issue was gaining momentum and had some respect; today it has neither.
He’s also done original scientific research into the health effects of mass poisoning victims in Japan with PCBs and dibenzofurans in the 1970s, after eating tainted rice-bran oil.
The extreme dangers of these chemicals, known but hidden by the manufacturers since the 1930s, were being confirmed by modern science. The sole US manufacturer of PCB electrical fluid, Monsanto (now the biggest perpetrator of biotech), was resorting to fraud to keep the chemicals on the market. Since that time, Ward had found PCBs many places, sometimes at the request of citizens. He has a budget for lab analysis, and he is not afraid to use it.
So, when I put the story together that the Gage Hall vents had never been tested, and published that this had been confirmed by Gov. Mario Cuomo’s office, I drove up to Delmar one afternoon in the autumn of 1993 and spent the day at his busy lab. I explained my theory of why I thought the vents were contaminated, mainly explaining that toxins were found in numerous rooms with vents and not found in many rooms without them. Also, there had never been a PCB-tainted building that did not have contaminated vents.
By this time I had a bit of a reputation as a PCB avenger myself, having been banned from the New Paltz campus, suing the state government for my right to report on the story, writing an endless stream of articles that got me into The New York Times, and so on. I had taken some risks, and now Ward was confident about taking one for me. I left his office with a set of sample jars, a little stainless steel spade, and a wish of “good luck.” A few days later I went on my first-ever sampling mission.
I gathered my buddy Chris McGregor, and early the next Sunday morning (when I figured most students and resident advisors would be good and hung over) we went to Gage. Dorms at New Paltz are locked, so we needed a contact inside. A young woman named Amanda, I’m not sure how I met her (probably evangelizing about the issue), came to the door in her sweats and tee-shirt and socks. She was also our official student witness. We went straight to the ground floor lounge. I’m not sure why I picked this room, but that is where we ended up.
I couldn’t afford a respirator, so I used a bandanna, tied around my face, which I know now was useless. The target of the mission was a vent above a stove, located in a student lounge. I dismantled the grate in front of the vent outlet, and using a paint scraper, scratched off some black crud on the inside of the inner metal wall. I then screwed the grate back on as best I could. Chris was videotaping the whole thing, and Amanda sat there “witnessing,” eyes open, but looking like she was going to fall asleep in her chair.
I finished the vent, then walked across the room and tore a swatch of wallpaper from a wall, and stuck that in a jar. We labeled the jars, and Chris and I went outside and took two samples of dirt from outside Scudder Hall near some student windows, another toxic dorm. We had four samples in all; the next day, I FedEx’ed them to Ward with an affidavit stating what I had done. (Since I had got a bunch of that black crud on the kitchen counter, I called up campus police and let them know I had been there, and that they better have one of their handy cleanup crews come and go over the kitchen.)
Well, that was in November, and it took about six months for the test results to come back. The analysis was done by Hazelton Labs in Wisconsin under a state contract. The results were finally ready in June, and it turned out that all four samples were hot, that is, contaminated.
The one from the vent above the stove hit more than 100 ppm (parts per million). Since PCBs are usually measured in parts per billion, that’s actually 100,000 ppb—an ungodly amount of a toxin to have anywhere near human beings, much less in a student lounge. This finding, in my mind, settled the issue of whether the vents needed a comprehensive testing program.
State officials had been warned about the vents from the very beginning, in particular by a high school science teacher from Kingston whose daughters were students at the college. The building had been opened a month after the transformer exploded with no tests having been run on the vents. Vents in adjoining buildings were later found to be contaminated, but that didn’t persuade anyone to go back and test the Gage Hall system; in truth, it made that prospect all the less appealing because everyone knew perfectly well what would happen if they did.
My first article in this series was published July 21, 1994 on the front page of Woodstock Times, titled “SUNY Dorm Tests Toxic.” The dorms were scheduled to re-open for the fall semester in just over one month, so we had the state behind the 8-ball. I figured it was enough time to cause a fuss, but not enough time for the state to do anything about it—the perfect crossfire.
In the article, Ward said that the results indicated “very high levels of PCBs” in the duct, adding, “this means there need to be additional studies to see how contaminated” the building really is. That we had a second sample helped the cause—the wallpaper came up very high as well, about 50,000 ppb. That 370 students had been living there for two years, scrambling eggs in that lounge, made the whole thing sound absolutely outrageous.
I tracked down Dr. Arnold Schecter, who a decade earlier had been the county health commissioner in Broome County, where there was an earlier PCB disaster in Binghamton. By the time I was doing this story, he was one of the world’s leading experts on dioxin (chemicals present in PCBs, and very similar to them)—indeed, his experience with the Binghamton building had been a turning point in his career. Now he spends a lot of time in Vietnam testing and examining survivors of Agent Orange. Schecter was notoriously cautious about commenting on PCB issues and had not said a word about New Paltz so far, but presented with hard data, he finally spoke up.
He called for thorough testing of the structure, and added, “It would be prudent to shut the building down and do the sampling.” This probably sent chills down the spines of guys in the New York State Department of Health, who I am sure felt an urge to spit when they heard Schecter’s name.
I was doing my best to build a consensus of renowned experts that the building needed to be closed, and by association, so too did nearby Capen Hall, which had not been properly tested, either. My article also included a quote by Dr. Ellen Silbergeld of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another heavyweight on dioxin, warning that the state’s safety study (called a risk assessment) used to open Gage Hall was “severely out of date,” meaning that even if no additional contamination had been found, the state’s “allowable levels” were themselves potentially deadly to far more students than the state was claiming.
I also quoted George Farrell, the local high school science teacher and father of three kids at the college, who from the outset had warned the Ulster County health commissioner, a guy named Dean Palen, that he had a vent problem. “They did not want to hear about vents” when they were first opening the buildings, he told me in an interview after I found the contamination in the student lounge.
Finally, I quoted Palen himself. But this was from an interview one year earlier, which my editor would not let me use at the time because it was so embarrassing. I had finally nailed down my theory that the Gage vents were contaminated, even though I could not prove it. I called up Palen and challenged him to explain why he had not tested the vents, given what I now knew he knew.
In the July 21, 1994 Woodstock Times article breaking the vent story, I finally got to write: “Palen, the person responsible for giving final authorization for re-opening contaminated buildings, offered no coherent explanation when asked last August how contamination had reached a janitors’ closet on the third floor of Gage Hall if it did not pass through the building’s ventilation system.” He had replied, on tape, which I could now quote: “It may well – I mean—I – I – I – this-this—I don’t—I don’t – it – it may—I – I don’t really know. And-and again, I don’t know how significant that is. It was cleaned up. That’s the significant point from a health department perspective.”
Palen, confronted with a basic fact and asked for an explanation, was revealed to be a blithering fool—or rather, a corrupt public official who had committed crimes and, reasonably enough, feared he was about to be caught. It took me two years to catch him, but I finally had him dead to rights—a sample in a jar.
Or so I thought.
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