1991 PCB Incident: 14 Years Later
Capen Residence Hall at SUNY New Paltz, where Jennifer Folster lived. Photo for Planet Waves by Steve Bergstein
On Dec. 29, 1991, a power "spike" resulting from an off-campus traffic accident seriously damaged electrical transformers in five buildings on campus. The oil in the transformers contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some of the oil spilled directly onto the floors of the transformer vaults and limited amounts spread through the buildings as smoke or vapor.
Under the direction of the county and state health departments, the university began a massive, thorough clean-up effort in the five buildings: Bliss, Gage and Scudder residence halls, Parker Theatre and Coykendall Science Building. As an additional precaution, 29 other buildings were thoroughly tested and, if necessary, cleaned.
The cleanup, led by the Ulster County Department of Health, also included the New York State Department of Health, Office of General Services, Department of Environmental Conservation, State University's Construction Fund and the Dormitory Authority. Six separate laboratories were involved in testing and re-testing campus buildings.
The latest test were initiated by the campus and completed in March 2005. The tests were performed by and evaluated by the New York State Department of Health. Air sample results from the recent testing, as well as those from previous tests in 1997, 1998 and 2001, are well below the air criterion established for the post-incident clean up. Wipe samples from the recent tests were also well below the surface criterion established for the post-incident clean up with one exception. Wipe samples taken from the east wall in the Parker Theatre transformer vault slightly exceeded the acceptable level for post-incident clean-up of 1 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. This surface wipe criterion is 10 times more stringent than the Federal EPA criterion of 10 micrograms per 100 square centimeters. Three of the eight samples collected in the Parker Theatre transformer vault that exceeded criterion ranged from 1.11 to 1.33 micrograms per 100 square centimeter - still well below the EPA criterion. Moreover, no PCBs were detected in the air sample from the Parker Theatre vault, and no direct contact is anticipated since the encapsulated surface is located in the former vault room with restricted access protected by a locked door.
Based upon the State and Ulster County Health Departments' recommendation, the college has reapplied an encapsulant to all surfaces of the Parker Theatre transformer vault walls.
As the safety of our students and employees are our primary concern, the college will continue its routine monitoring and inspection program with special attention to the Parker Theatre vault. If any safety issues arise during the future monitoring or testing of any of these encapsulated areas, the college will notify the campus community.
If you have additional questions, you may contact Brian Colandrea, Director of Environmental Health and Safety at SUNY New Paltz at x2385. In addition, testing results are available in the Sojourner Truth Library on the SUNY New Paltz campus.
SUNY New Paltz Today:
- There is no danger of another PCB accident at New Paltz today.
- There have been no PCB transformers or fixtures at New Paltz since 1995. In August 1994, SUNY New Paltz became the first SUNY campus to be 100 percent PCB transformer-free.
- Testing following the incident, including the latest testing in 2005, has been thorough. Examples of areas tested include: ventilation system duct work, sinks, walls, furniture, floors, backs of heaters, transformer vaults, hallways and file cabinet interiors. To date, more than 12,000 swipe and air samples have been taken and analyzed.
- There is a uniquely low risk of any PCB contamination at New Paltz today.
- New Paltz is probably unique because the extensive cleaning and testing program following the incident identified and cleaned many of the PCBs that would be found in almost all modern buildings constructed before the chemicals were banned in 1976. The program covered the five buildings primarily affected and 29 other buildings on campus. The criteria used to clean the surfaces in buildings were 10 times more stringent than Federal EPA standards.
- Until 1976, PCBs were widely used in roofing materials, fluorescent light ballasts, glue, carbonless paper, transformers and capacitors. PCBs are found in low levels in most buildings today.