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State Office Building Remains Unoccupied Six Years After PCB Fire

February 4, 1987

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. (AP) _ Six years after an electrical transformer fire spread soot laden with toxic PCBs and dioxins through the 20-story State Office Building, the cleanup is still incomplete and the building is still closed.

The work so far has cost $36 million. Construction of the building itself cost only $17 million 14 years ago.

The basement fire on Feb. 5, 1981, caused only minimal damage. But the chemicals in the smoke forced the relocation of nearly 700 workers from their offices in the prominent central tower of a government building complex in the heart of this upstate city.

Officials are now estimating that the building will be reopened in January 1988. It is the latest in a series of projections that have left employees’ groups questioning the integrity of the project and whether it should ever have been attempted.

″It’s been a series of changes. We haven’t taken them seriously for a long time,″ said John May, chairman of the state office building committee of the Public Employees Federation, which represents nearly 400 of the employees who used to work in the building.

″I think they have wasted a lot of money and taken a lot more time than necessary, and so far they don’t have the desired results,″ said May.

″If they had been prudent and taken the time to fully assess the problem at the start I’m not sure they would be in this position now,″ said Tim Henehan. He is president of Local 002 of the Civil Service Employees Association, which represents about 250 maintenance and clerical employees who worked in the building.

″They were always going to reopen the building,″ Henehan said. ″Maybe it shouldn’t be, but they made the decision without looking at other alternatives until something beyond their control forced them to.″

Patricia Zemenak, president of a citizen’s committee monitoring the cleanup, said the building should be entombed or demolished.

Officials said razing the tower would have been equally costly because decontamination still would have been necessary.

Although it was known within hours that the transformer involved in the early-morning fire was cooled by PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, officials initially thought nothing more than a routine cleanup was needed.

However, tests by the state Department of Health revealed that highly toxic dioxins, furans and PCBs had spread through the entire building, even into desk drawers.

Animal studies on the class of chemicals called dioxins have suggested a link to cancer but there is no proof that they have ever killed anyone. They can cause skin disorders. Furans can cause skin and eye irritation. PCBs are only moderately toxic, but medical authorities say they can cause cancer and liver disorders in animals.

″We had to develop standards and fashion every step of the cleanup because nothing like this had happened before,″ said David R. Rings, executive coordinator of the state Office of General Services, which is directing the cleanup. ″It was the first accident of its kind in the world.″

More than 7,000 cubic yards of solid waste has been removed.

The second through 18th floors have been decontaminated, but crews continue working on the first floor and two sub-ground levels, including the floor where the fire broke out.

Once already officials thought they had reduced toxin levels enough on the lower three floors to prepare them for occupancy, only to learn last fall that levels of toxic chemicals were still unacceptable.

Additional costs associated with the cleanup, including health tests, will push the total cost to near $40 million. That figure does not include the costs of handling $1 billion in claims and lawsuits filed against the state.

Rings said that while the accident has been costly, the experience has been beneficial.

″It increased the awareness of this kind of problem and resulted in a higher level of inspection at other sites, and as these older type of transformers have become obsolete, they’ve been replaced,″ he said. ″With every passing day the risk of this happening again grows smaller and smaller.″

″What we have learned technically and scientifically has been used as a foundation for decision-making in similar incidents across the country,″ said state Health Commissioner David Axelrod.

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