READERS MAY ASK, “Didn’t he write about this last week?” The answer is Yes… and No. They’re both about people who alert us to the toxic effects of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). Last week the subject was Dr. David Carpenter, a physician and the director of the SUNY Albany Institute for Health and the Environment. He’s an expert on the science of PCBs, a family of chemicals suspected of causing cancer and other threats to human health. Dr. Carpenter did not respond to a request for an interview by The Columbia Paper, but he has been speaking with the Times Union. A law firm representing a large company that once manufactured PCBs is raising questions about the testimony of the distinguished doctor.
This week’s public servant died a week ago. His name was Ward Stone.
His obituary says he served as state wildlife pathologist for 40 years. He was born in Hudson and grew up in and around Chatham.
I was editor of the Woodstock weekly newspaper in Ulster County when I first heard about charges against a Columbia County landowner accused of dumping hazardous materials at a private landfill. The landfill was permitted to bury construction and demolition debris. The hazardous waste was not. The pollution was confirmed by Ward Stone. I recall wondering what the wildlife pathologist was doing in a landfill, but it was a story too far away for us to cover.
SUNY New Paltz was much closer and a former SUNY student named Eric told me his story. A car had accidentally struck a utility pole near the college campus. The impact sent a jolt of electricity down the power line onto the campus and into the utility rooms of four different dormitories. Flames and smoke followed as PCBs inside the transformers burned.
This could have been a human disaster except for one thing: the college was closed for the holiday break. There were almost no students or staff members in the dorms. Soon after the fires were extinguished the college began a major cleanup using a private industrial cleaning company firm and the dorms reopened.
Students, parents and community residents who knew anything about the dorm fires, concluded that a disaster had been averted. But not Eric. He had data and calculations and theories in great piles. He believed that the math was incorrect. PCBs were not accounted for in the cleanup data. Week after week he would offer another thesis but there nothing until he got to some heating ducts. They were in a student lounge behind grates and behind them, metal duct work. Four screws and he’d removed the access to an oily substance. PCBs are an oily substance.
I told him not to go near the screws. I said to let the experts do it. I said we couldn’t afford tests to determine whether the substance in the heating duct was some kind of PCB. He laughed and said Ward Stone would help. Two days later he brought a video recording to the office. It shows a young man wearing a heavy-duty face mask unscrew the grate and lean into the duct. Eric can be heard from behind the camera. The masked man removes a large test tube from his shirt pocket, writes something on it and backs out.
The test results showed PCB levels far above the hazardous level just a few feet away from student lounge seats. We ran the story. Within a few weeks the university ordered “a partial” additional cleanup.
Nobody questioned how or where Eric got his test kit. It was reckless but it was needed. Thank you Ward Stone.