County Lawmaker Plans Probe Of Woodstock Health Hazards
An Oneida county legislator who said he spent nearly 30 hours on the Woodstock '99 site over the course of the weekend of July 23–25, has vowed to launch an investigation into the potential health hazards of portable toilets at the festival.
"I saw port-a-potties overflowing the very first day through Friday," said county legislator Frank Tallarino, a Republican. "[The areas around the toilets] started to collect human urine, and the kids were making mud pies with the feces and bathing in their own urine."
With trash piling up in heaps all over the site, many porta-johns going unemptied and accusations of an insufficient number of toilets for the more than 220,000 fans in attendance, the site of Woodstock '99 was unsanitary at best and potentially a serious health hazard, according to Tallarino and a number of sanitation experts.
But while Constance Kramer, director of health for the Oneida County Department of Health, admitted the conditions on the Woodstock site were not ideal, she said they were not a hazard to the attendees.
"We had a brand-new city pop up overnight," she said. "Like in any city of 250,000, there are people that don't pick up their garbage and don't keep their house clean. You have to expect some gap in getting this city operating right. Obviously things were not the best they could be."
Tallarino, who said he spent 40 years as a site contractor working on sewage and landscape projects — including a number on the Griffiss site — said the festival venue deteriorated considerably over the three days of Woodstock '99, July 23–25.
"Why did this happen?" Tallarino said. "If, in a prison, you subject prisoners to heat, poor food, or food they have no access to or had to pay high prices for and unsanitary conditions, what happens is they riot. If [prisoners] do, you can be sure kids or disgruntled adults will do the same thing."
Kramer said her staff of 80 inspectors were on-site 24 hours a day beginning July 22 in 40-person shifts monitoring the cleanliness of the water and food-service areas, as well as the water pressure. Additionally, Kramer said, 15 staffers oversaw construction, electricity, water, sanitation and food vendors in the weeks leading up to the festival.
A number of food-service violations were reported during the event, she said, although she claimed her office was still in the process of tabulating how many and a final number was not available. Those figures will be made public next week, as soon as her staff finishes its follow-up inspections, she added.
Among the violations were those for food that was not kept at proper temperatures, food-service workers' failure to use protective gloves as well as for temperature violations on refrigerated trucks, violations which necessitated destroying the food in the vehicles. Kramer said. All of those infractions, which Kramer described as routine, could potentially lead to such serious or fatal stomach diseases as E. Coli and gastrointestinal infection.
Since the melee, many festival-goers, workers and volunteers blamed at least in part the high-prices at concessions — where water was $4 a bottle and hot dogs went for $5 — for the Sunday night rioting July 25. In addition, they said that insufficient security staff and portable toilets that overflowed with human waste contributed to a climate of resentment.
Event co-promoter John Scher, however, denied that those elements fueled the riot. Asked Thursday why he portrayed operations as generally trouble-free at press conferences during the concert, Scher seemed to avoid the question.
He said police and local officials also gave positive assessments of the festival during the event. Scher asked why reporters didn't pose concerns about sanitation and safety during the concert, although several did raise these issues only to be berated by the promoter for their line of questioning.
Event publicist Ilene Marder, a veteran of all three Woodstock festivals, said portable toilets and garbage cans routinely went unemptied during the three-day event, because organizers did not anticipate the crowd to be everywhere on the site at all times.
"We thought we'd get the campgrounds clean when they left during the day to see music," Marder said, "and the concert site at night when they were camping. They were just all over the place, though." Marder said she was unable to provide the name of any of the half dozen or more contractors handling the liquid-waste disposal for the festival.
Both city representatives and at least one solid waste company who contracted to remove garbage from the Woodstock site said they were surprised at how little refuse they were being asked to remove from site during the festival.
"We expressed concern because we were not getting in the quantities we thought we should be [as early as Friday morning, July 23]," said Robert Comis, Rome Commissioner of Public Works. Comis said his department was expecting the first load of human waste well before Friday morning.
"We had very little waste," said George James, plant manager for Oneida Waste Management.
James, whose company was contracted to gather trash in hydraulic packers and transport it to local landfills, said he was surprised by the light flow. He said that he wasn't sure if it was lack of manpower or the inability to get through the crowds that slowed the removal of the trash.
Health Department head Kramer said the original plan called for the portable toilets to be pumped out three times a day, but that the heavy use of the toilets prevented that from happening.
Stopping short of saying that the portable toilets were a health hazard, Kramer said she suspected that the sanitation trucks contracted to handle the waste removal for Woodstock were not available around-the-clock as they were supposed to be. "There's only so many people that can do so many things," Kramer said.
"As far as it is now, there have been no reports from the medical team at Woodstock or the local hospitals relative to any diagnosed infection transmitted through feces or contaminated water," said Kramer, who, like organizers, placed much of the blame on the unpredictability of the crowd. She added, however, that ultimate responsibility belonged to Woodstock's promoters.
But promoters Scher and Lang have thus far put the responsibility for the Woodstock chaos on unruly fans.
"The port-a-potties were definitely maintained at a lesser quality than they should have been," Kramer said. "They were not cleaned as well as they should have been." In addition to complaints about the high price of food, attendees and local residents said the nearly unbearable living conditions contributed to frustrations.
"People were mad by Friday morning. I was hearing so much about the campground, kids were complaining that sewage [from nearby portable toilets] was going into their tents," said Rome resident Jackie Gulla, 28, who worked as a ticket taker at the festival. "They were sleeping in it. They couldn't believe that was what they were expected to live with."
Concert-goers complained that the free potable water that producers promised them was almost entirely unavailable, both because fountains were turned off or broken and because water was contaminated with sewage.
"There was fecal coliform in the water, but nobody told us. It wasn't right. I saw people getting sick, throwing up, having diarrhea," Thomas Hyyti, 31, of Revere, Mass., said. His brother, David Hyyti, 28, was among the seven people arrested during the riots.
Kramer denied the accusation of contamination by fecal coliform, bacteria from feces, and said that as of Thursday no area hospitals had reported that type of infection. By law, hospitals are required to report any such health risk.
Rome Memorial Hospital, which was one of four area hospitals handling the majority of Woodstock medical cases, did report a dramatic increase in stomach-related illnesses involving diarrhea and vomiting Saturday, according to a spokesperson. While both symptoms are commonly related to food or water-borne bacteria, the hospital was not able to attribute them to any such contamination. Kramer pointed out that the illnesses are also common side-effects of heat stress.
Kramer also said her office has not yet tabulated how often the toilets were emptied, or investigated fans' complaints that some were never serviced.
As for the stench of human waste that hung over the toilets between the two main stages, Kramer said, "whenever you've got that much stuff in one place, it will start smelling."
Woodstock organizers set up 2,600 portable toilets for the event, event publicist Marder said. That would bring them into compliance with New York sate laws that require one toilet per 100 attendees, according to a sanitation expert.
William Carroll, executive director of the Portable Sanitation Association, a trade organization in Minnesota, was skeptical about Marder's claim: "Even if they had that many [portable toilets], which I doubt," Carroll said. Prior to the festival Carroll sent a letter to Kramer outlining the potential health hazards of unclean and insufficient portable toilets at a mass gathering.
"It didn't appear to be enough and I would say they were 500–800 units short," Carroll said, explaining he had reports from sanitation workers on-site that there may have been as few as 1,600 toilets at Woodstock '99.
Marder disputed that claim.
"Nobody had the time to be trained or oriented and go through trial and error to find the perfect way to do everything," Kramer said. "Yes, there were places that were not as desirable as others. Was it safe? I think so, especially if people used discretion. If your toilet overflows in your house, do you dance in the water or do something to avoid it?"
(Staff Writers Chris Nelson and Brian Hiatt contributed to this report.)