October 18, 2000

Residents Review Duffield Plans

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The Ithaca Planning and Development Board conducted a public hearing last night in City Hall to hear residents’ comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Duffield Hall, Cornell’s nanotechnology facility, a project still in its apporval stages.

Cornell asked for an environmental impact statement “to afford the greatest level of public participation in the review process,” according to Bob Stundtner, Duffield Hall project manager.

After a brief overview of the project by Kathryn Wolf, a visiting fellow in landscape architecture, Prof. Ken Birman, computer science, criticized the DEIS for having “unrealistically optimistic disaster scenarios.”

Birman cited arsine and silane as two hazardous materials that will be used in Duffield Hall. He noted that two pounds of arsine gas dispersed in an accident scenario would result in several deaths. “Silane gas spontaneously combusts when exposed to the air in large quantities,” Birman said.

Lee Davis, a member of ENSR, a Syracuse environmental consulting firm, was the principal author of the DEIS. He refuted Birman’s assertion that arsine would have lethal consequences if released within the building’s public spaces.

“If two pounds of arsine were released in the atrium, it would be unlikely that there would be severe injuries to individuals in the atrium,” Davis said.

Given Duffield Hall’s exposed position with “hundreds of thousands of students walking past it at crowded times,” Birman expressed concern with the potential for catastrophic effects should a worst case scenario involving these hazardous chemicals occur.

“I imagine a real explosion would release more than a couple of grams per hour [of arsine or silane], which is the worst case scenario listed in the DEIS,” he said.

But he stressed that he has few remaining reservations about the project except plans to accommodate research that utilize such hazardous chemicals.

“I don’t think we need to take this risk. Duffield Hall is a safe facility for almost every category of work except one that doesn’t even need to happen for the lab to function effectively … Cornell will still be swarming with vibrant research activities,” Birman said, urging the planning board to act against allowing such hazardous chemicals.

John Hopcroft, J. Silbert Dean of Engineering, addressed the Board and explained the developmental process behind the Duffield Hall plan, emphasizing that “the primary design requirement was safety.”

“We realized in 1993 that [the College of Engineering] needed a research facility to maintain itself on the cutting edge, and this couldn’t be met by renovating existing clean room space [in Knight Laboratory],” Hopcroft said.

He described how project leaders noticed the effects of location on research when visiting nanotechnology facilities at other peer universities.

“In the three schools where facilities were remote, they appeared underutilized. Where they were centrally located, they were alive with activity,” Hopcroft explained, adding that “the cross-pollination leads to new ideas and new results.”

Reiterating the commitment to safety, he emphasized that “the designers assured me the location [on the engineering quad] was not an issue. The DEIS convinced me it’s safe.”

Stundtner was equally confident in the design’s ability to minimize the potential for a disaster.

“We believe these [accidental release scenarios] are rather unusual circumstances. We think that what we have provided are pretty extreme examples of accidental releases,” Stundtner said.

The public comment period for Duffield Hall concludes on Oct. 27. The Planning and Development Board will then review comments and prepare responses.

Archived article by Ken Meyer