Neighbors want action to prevent new blazes and PCB releases
GHENT–Three and a half months after the huge industrial fire at the TCI of New York in West Ghent, local residents continue to plead with the town officials to consider holding the transformer recycling plant more accountable.
The August 1 and 2 blaze at the TCI building and the ensuing plume of smoke and that led to pollution warnings in three states has resulted in the rise of many concerns among the public, ranging from the possibility of exposure to PCBs and the controversy surrounding the testing for hazardous materials done by the state Department of Health to concerns with TCI’s plans to rebuild. Residents have been persistent in attending Ghent Town Board meetings, requesting the town to cite TCI for violations alleged by members of the public. At last month’s board meeting, Town Attorney Ted Guterman advised the town not to cite TCI, saying it is unclear what the company’s original permit allowed it to do and the town does not have enough information to know whether the company violated any codes.
A representative of TCI, a company that recycles and disposes of old electrical transformers, said by email this week that the company has complied with local, state and federal laws and regulations. He also said the company has had new owners since 2006.
At last week’s monthly meeting, Ghent resident Patti Matheney told the Town Board that she had received over 400 pages of TCI documents from the state Department of Environmental Conservation by requesting them through the statebFreedom of Information Law (FOIL). She said the documents were requests by TCI to the DEC for permits to expand a new business. According to Ms. Matheney, these requests by TCI began in June of this year.
“Four-hundred pages, and it started in June?” said Ms. Matheney. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Ms. Matheney told the board that the situation reminds her of when TCI sought approval to build an incinerator at the site in the late 1980s. “They got all their permits from DEC for the incinerator before they came to the town for any permits,” she said. “This is what they did before.”
Board member Richard Sando recalled the night before the fire, when TCI came before the Planning Board to request an expansion of office space. He said that when company representatives were asked the reason for their request that night, they replied that it was to move office staff out of the plant. After hearing Ms. Matheney’s comments, he said he wonders whether TCI was trying to make room for a new business. “This doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Mr. Sando.
In an email to the Columbia Paper on Monday, TCI Vice President of Operations Brian Hemlock wrote in a statement that “the permit requests we have filed seek to renew existing permits or to exchange an existing federal permit for a state permit, per state requirements.” Mr. Hemlock also wrote that that there is no furnace in the company’s plans.
Resident Mark Johnson made a plea to the board to consider the reasons behind the public’s concern about TCI. He presented each board member with a copy of a 1986 letter written by the then-chairman of TCI and addressed to the Ghent Planning Board, pointing to a line that reads: “We will not accept any material that has been manufactured as Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) equipment.”
Along with the letter Mr. Johnson distributed was a sheet of paper that listed a few reasons why some residents feel TCI should be cited. One of the reasons referenced the 1986 letter, focusing on a sample that showed elevated levels of PCBs at the fire site. An inventory report submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency by TCI August 2 on what may have been at the site during the fire listed three transformers containing high PCB concentrations. The inventory also listed six bushings, each with 15 gallons of oil contaminated with PCBs.
In TCI’s email sent Monday Mr. Hemlock called attention to the fact that the current ownership and management of the company had only begun in 2006. That is when the current ownership bought the assets from the prior company, TCI Inc.
“It is important that our operations not be confused with previous management,” Mr. Hemlock wrote. “We have nothing to do with the plans, permits and operations undertaken by the prior owners.”
Mr. Hemlock said this includes the previous company’s pursuit of permission for an incinerator in the late 1980s, which ultimately was denied.
The list provided by Mr. Johnson also included the concern about sodium stored at the fire site. The August 2 inventory prepared for the EPA showed sodium was being stored there by TCI’s partner company, Power Substations (PSS).
West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino said during a previous meeting that he was unaware of the presence of the sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. He said that 50 or more firefighters could have died that night if it hadn’t been for a TCI employee who was present to warn them about the sodium.
TCI had provided all the documentation required by law.
Mr. Sando commended Mr. Johnson for his preparation. “This is exactly the type of interaction that we need,” said Mr. Sando. “That’s why we have public hearings. We want to know what the people think.”
The night before last week’s Town Board meeting, TCI attended the Ghent Planning Board’s application night to present the company’s application to rebuild the facility. According to an audio recording of their presentation recorded by Chris Bishop of public radio station WGXC, the company applied for basically the same building that was lost in the fire, with the exception of changes to add a new fire suppression system as well as a few alterations due to new code requirements.
According to the audio, one Planning Board member told TCI, “One of the things I think will be very key to know is precisely what goes on.” The board member said they will want a detailed description of what goes on at the site, including the processes, the chemicals used, and chemicals stored onsite.
“We’re going to have to find a mechanism to know in advance,” said the Planning Board member. “Not afterward, but in advance what’s there.”
In TCI’s email, Mr. Hemlock stated that TCI’s business will not change, but that the new building will be improved with the new fire suppression system as well as “cutting edge energy conservation engineering.” The cleanup of the site is nearly complete, and Mr. Hemlock says the company plans on sharing the closure report after the DEC declares it final.
Neighbors want action to prevent new blazes and PCB releases