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Bird could soon get EPA’s approval for handling contaminant in basement

In a Jan. 16 Article titled “EPA to consider plan for Bird chemical removal” the headline was misstated. The university is not planning on cleaning up the PCBs. The Daily Orange regrets this error.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could soon approve Syracuse University’s plan to deal with a small concentration of a contaminant in the basement of E.S. Bird Library.

That’s about four years after tests found that old carpeting in the basement contained polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs. The discovery of these chemicals stopped construction in the basement. But once the EPA issues its final approval, the university would be free to go forward with renovations.                            

“We’ve had a very productive working relationship with the university,” said Jim Haklar, an EPA environmental engineer. “And we look forward to continuing that relationship as the approval goes to public comment and hopefully — ultimately — becomes final.”

PCBs were used during the 1950s, 60s and 70s in building materials such as caulk. They’ve been banned since the late 1970s. The chemicals may cause cancer and have been shown to cause other serious health effects in animals, Haklar said. Bird Library opened in 1972.

In SU’s case, he said, the thought is that a glue holding the carpeting to the basement floor contained PCBs. Once the university discovered the chemicals, it contacted the EPA.

Typically, the PCBs the agency regulates for disposal are 50 parts per million or greater, he said. After a cleanup, tests in Bird Library showed a low level of the chemicals — less than 10 ppm — remained in the concrete, Haklar said.

If the chemicals aren’t coming up through the concrete, that concentration doesn’t pose a danger to students’ health, he said. To leave this level of chemicals in the concrete of Bird Library, he said, EPA regulations specify they have to be covered.

The university sent in its initial application in October 2011. It involves refinishing the floor, which will act as a cover, Haklar said. Periodic sampling will also be done to make sure there are no health and environmental risks, he said. The cost of the project isn’t in the approval.

Right now, a draft of the approval is in management and legal review. Haklar said he anticipates there will be a 30-day public comment period in the spring. If there are no “significant comments,” the agency would issue a final approval with sampling and reporting requirements, he said.

“Once that’s issued, Syracuse can take the ball and run with it,” Haklar said.

K. Matthew Dames, interim dean of libraries, directed inquiries about the renovations to the university public affairs.

Eric Beattie, director of campus planning, design and construction, didn’t return a phone call and two emails late Wednesday about the project. But, in November, he told The Daily Orange projects included the construction of classrooms.

On Wednesday, the University Senate Committee on the Library presented a report that mentioned the delays in renovations. The senate is an academic governing body made up of students, faculty, staff and administration.

Deborah Pellow, a professor of anthropology and chair of the committee, said in an interview before the meeting she thinks the library wasn’t a priority during the last nine and a half years.

The committee was told the project has taken a long time because “the government moves slowly,” she said.

“Do I buy it? I believe the government moves slowly,” she said. “But I believe that you can get the government to move faster if you care.”

But, Pellow said “it’s a changing scene” with a new chancellor.

When Chancellor Kent Syverud addressed the senate during the beginning of its meeting, one of the first things he said was: “Libraries are particularly important to me.”

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