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Queens Chronicle

RUE YORK: College official admits ‘We were wrong’ on toxic chemical

Denies then confirms toxin on campus

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Posted: Thursday, January 10, 2013 10:30 am | Updated: 11:24 am, Thu Jan 17, 2013.

PCE or no PCE? That was the question.

The administration at York College says it knew nothing about a toxin detected in the groundwater on campus, despite correspondence from a top CUNY engineer and a consulting company, hired by the school, stating otherwise.

“This is new information for us,” Dolores Swirin-Yao, York’s vice president of institutional advancement, said Monday. “We were not aware of PCE on campus.”

PCE, also known as perchloroethene, tetrachloroethylene or “perc,” is a colorless liquid widely used for dry-cleaning fabrics. Exposure to harmful amounts of PCE over extended periods of time can cause cancer, liver and kidney damage and memory loss and confusion, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The college falsely posted a message on its website and Facebook page stating that the Chronicle’s exclusive Jan. 3 report on the presence of PCE at York was inaccurate. Swirin-Yao said the college has asked Google to eliminate the post from its cache, and it should come down within 24 hours.

“This is a top priority for us,” Swirin-Yao said Wednesday. “We are embarrassed by it already. We were just wrong. It was based on our understanding through Ron [Thomas]. We were told strongly that [the story] was not correct. There was misinformation on our part. ... I apologize.”

Thomas, York’s vice president for administrative affairs, also stated that he was unaware of PCE being found at the college. But Ali Vedavarz, CUNY’s director of engineering services, offered a dissenting opinion.

“They knew about it, absolutely,” he told the Chronicle on Monday.

The potentially dangerous chemical was discovered by Tectonic Engineering & Surveying Consultants, which was hired by the state Dormitory Authority to help solve a flooding problem in the subbasement of the Academic Core Building at York. The PCE levels detected at two of the 12 temporary monitoring wells at York were above state groundwater standards, according to Tectonic, but not high enough to be considered dangerous or to be detected in the air.

“The executive summary from Tectonic is the only valid report,” Vedavarz said. “If the college wants to present something different, then they have to take responsibility for that information.”

Thomas later said he would support the information supplied by Tectonic.

“I wasn’t sure if the perc was on the campus or not,” Thomas said. “I must have skipped that portion of the report, but if it’s in the report, then it’s in the report.”’

York’s president, Marcia Keizs, did not return a call requesting comment by press time.

Tectonic reported the existence of perchloroethylene in groundwater that was sampled and tested at a monitoring well near the Performing Arts Center, Vedavarz said.

The discovery prompted CUNY to scrap Tectonic’s original flood prevention proposal which involved pushing wells into the sand beneath the Academic Core Building, extracting the water through a header pipe and carrying it to a recharge area located near the Health and Physical Education Building.

“It would have sucked perc into the water and DEC was not going to accept that,” Vedavarz said, referring to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

He added that Tectonic told CUNY implementing the plan would warrant the installation of a water treatment plant at the south side of the campus. As that would be costly, require a large footprint and have a high service and maintenance cost, it was unfeasible for the college. Now York is considering an alternate solution that calls for the waterproofing of the basement using a mesh membrane.

Asked where the PCE came from, Vedavarz said in an email, “All we know is that the source was not from the college.”

He said the school notified the departments of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection about the PCE. However, a spokeswoman for the DEC says the state agency has no record of such a notification and the DEP, a city agency, referred inquiries to DEC.

Assemblyman Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) says he thinks he knows where the chemical originated and he is sending a letter to the agencies, prompted by the Chronicle’s report, asking them to take action.

“I believe it’s chemicals from the West Side Corp.,” Scarborough said. “Water is fluid. It’s not stationary. It’s too much of a coincidence.”

The Westside Corp. site is an inactive hazardous waste disposal site in Jamaica, which was used as a storage and distribution center for dry-cleaning chemicals.

Scarborough says he fears the discovery of PCE at York is a sign that the West Side Corp. contamination is spreading and since the pumping at nearby Station 24, a pilot program to clean polluted groundwater and prevent flooding, was discontinued, he is all the more concerned.

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