Environmental Failures/Binghamton State Office Building
Binghamton State Office Building Fire, 1981
In February of 1981, an electrical transformer fire broke out in the basement of the 18 story State Office Building in Binghamton, New York. The fire started at 5:30 AM and was relatively short. It lasted for a total of only about thirty minutes. The result, however, was one of the worst cases of chemical contamination of a building in US history. This incident is sometimes referred to as the first “indoor environmental disaster.”
At 5:33 A.M. on February 5, 1981, a switch gear (which functions much as a fuse box or circuit breaker does) in the mechanical room failed, causing an electrical arc that lasted twenty to thirty minutes. The heat in the room rose to an estimated 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, causing a ceramic bushing on one of two nearby transformers to crack. About 180 gallons of this insulating fluid, known to contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) escaped from the transformer which in turn vaporized and mixed with smoke and soot from the fire. When the fire alarm was triggered, hatches in the roof above the stairwells automatically opened. When the firefighters arrived and opened the door to the mechanical room, the contaminated smoke and soot was drawn up the stairwells in a chimney-like effect spreading the toxic contaminants to the ventilation systems which in turn dispersed toxic soot containing PCBs, dioxin and dibenzofurans (furnans) throughout the building.
While initially it was expected to only take days to reopen, the cleanup effort revealed the difficulty of removing PCB residue. The building remained closed until October 11, 1994. Multiple environmental samples taken throughout the cleanup had illustrated that despite their best efforts, workers had been unable to remove the residue, leading to several complete decontamination procedures within the building. The duration of the cleanup, combined with the uncertainty of the final effectiveness of the cleanup, led many workers to question whether the building was safe enough for reoccupation. The building had been constructed in 1972 at a cost of $17 million, but the cleanup took nearly 14 years and cost $53 million. The disaster also spawned a legal process that lasted over twenty years. Litigation lasted over twenty years ending in 2004 with a $7.2 million settlement between the various claimants and the two companies who manufactured the electrical equipment and transformer coolant respectively.
PCBs, such a those contained in older transformers, are considered to be toxic substances that may result in serious health concerns. It has been found that when burned, PCBs generate by-products which include polychlorinated dibenzobioxin (Dioxin) and polychlorinated dibenzofurans that are even more toxic than the PCBs themselves. Transformers containing PCBs were manufactured between the years 1929 and 1977 and were subsequently banned for use in manufacturing transformers and some other electrical devices. The EPA now regulates the use, location, storage and disposal of transformers containing PCBs. In addition, as a result of this failure and a number of other high profile fires of various types, the industry, including the major building codes, are placing a much greater emphasis on smoke control and smoke evacuation in buildings.
- One week after the Binghamton incident, a transformer leak occurred in an office building in Albany, New York.
- On May 15, 1983, a transformer fire caused the evacuation of a large office building in San Francisco, and as a result, 150 people are included in a medical surveillance program (Wegars 1983)
- In December, 1983, an office building in downtown Syracuse, New York had to be closed in a similar incident (New York Times 1983)
- In June 1985, a transformer located in the basement of the New Mexico State Highway Department overheated and released an oily mist containing PCBs in an askarel fluid extensively contaminating the three-story building.
- In December 1991, a similar fire occurred at the State University of New York at New Paltz, contaminating several buildings and resulting in a first phase cleanup operation that lasted over three years
Additional Binghamton Office Fire Websites
- Schecter, A., (1983), “Contamination of an Office Building in Binghampton, New York by PCBs, Dioxins, Furans and Biphenylenes After an Electrical Panel and Electrical Incident,” Chemosphere, 12 (4/5), pp 669-680.
- DesRosiers, (1984). “PCB's, PCDF's, and PCDD's resulting from transformer/capacitor fires: an overview.”, In: Addis G, Komai R.Y., eds. Proceedings: the 1983 PCB seminar, EPRI EL-3581, project 2028. Palo Alto, California: Electric Power Research Institute, 1984;6-41 to 6-57.
- O'Keefe, P.W., Silkworth, J.B., Gurthy, J.F., et al., (1985). “Chemical and biological investigations of a transformer accident at Binghamton NY”, Environmental Health Perspect., 60:201-9.
- Schecter, A., (1986), “The Binghamton State Office Building PCB, Dioxin and Dibenzofuran Electrical Transformer Incident: 1981-1986,” Chemosphere, 15 (9-12), pp 1273-1280.
- Vogt, Barbara Muller, and Sorensen, John H., (2002), “How Clean is Safe? Improving the Effectiveness of Decontamination of Structures and People Following Chemical and Biological Incidents”, Final Report prepared for the U.S. Department of Energy Chemical and Biological National Security Program, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, October, pp. 14-15.
- National Academy of Sciences (2005), “Reopening Public Facilities After a Biological Attack: A Decision-Making Framework,”, http://www.nap.edu/openbook/0309096618/html/193.html, accessed May 18, 2006, pp. 193-194.
- Simonson, Mark, (2006), “Office building becomes toxic tower,” The Daily Star, http://www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/simonson/2006/01/simonson0130.html, accessed May 18, 2006
- http://www.epa.gov/reg3wcmd/pcbs.htm, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), (2007), Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), accessed on May 14, 2007.
- DIONNE Jr., E. J. "FATE OF BINGHAMTON'S SEALED TOWER STILL UNCERTAIN - NYTimes.com." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. New York Times, 11 Aug. 1981. <http://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/11/nyregion/fate-of-binghamton-s-sealed-tower-still-uncertain.html>.
- "Acceptable Risk?" UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004. University of California Press. <http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft5t1nb3k6>.
- "Government Plaza, Binghamton." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 25 Sept. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government_Plaza,_Binghamton>.
- Wilber, Tom. "25 Years Ago, Small Fire Became Big Problem." News. Press & Sun-Bulletin, 6 Feb. 2006. <http://web.sunybroome.edu/~dixon_a/SOB.htm>.