Planners skeptical, as PCB oil recycling firm seeks to rebuild
GHENT–Tough questioning by the town Planning Board directed at TCI of NY continued last week, as TCI President and part owner Brain Hemlock along with company engineers Mike Sullivan and Brandee Nelson were pressed on matters including l the recently completed fire investigation report by the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control and what one board member called the company’s “credibility problem.”
TCI’s Falls Industrial Road facility burned and exploded early last August, generating a plume of smoke that led to air quality alerts in Columbia County and around the region. The company is now in the process of applying for a permit to rebuild. Its business is dismantling and recycling old electrical transformers, which contain PCBs, a class of industrial chemical hazardous to humans and the environment.
The February 6 Planning Board meeting had to be relocated to a larger room to make room for the approximately 40 people who attended. And the discussion spilled over to the Town Board meeting the following evening.
One subject Planning Board members wanted to know more about was Power Substation Services (PSS), a licensed contractor operating within the facility under contract with TCI. PSS used sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. The town was unaware of the presence of PSS and of sodium.
“That was a second business that was operating and we should have been notified,” said Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Walters.
“That’s a gray area,” replied Mr. Sullivan, the TCI engineer. He said PSS was just a contractor.
Mr. Hemlock told the board that TCI drained oil containing PCBs at concentrations low enough so that the materials were not regulated by state or federal agencies (less than less than 50 parts per million). Once the oil was drained from the transformers, TCI dismantled them. It was the drained oil that PSS was processing at the TCI site. Prior to its agreement with PSS in 2010, Mr. Hemlock said TCI sent the drained oil offsite to a third party. He said the new facility would not involve PSS, and TCI would resume sending the oil somewhere else.
“All processing of oil is off the table,” he said of the proposed facility.
In a statement issued the day after the meeting Mr. Hemlock said that TCI did not view the activities of (PSS) at its building as “something we were compelled to report to the town,” adding, “independent contractors routinely work on-site for a host of businesses, institutions and residences.”
But he said that in the future “we will as a matter of course alert the town if and when an independent contractor is to leave its equipment on our site.”
“The speculation is that TCI tried to sneak PSS in. That’s how it looks in hindsight,” Mr. Sullivan said.
“It does look bad,” said Planning Board member Larry Machiz. “You guys have a credibility problem.”
Board member Gary Ocean brought up the meeting minutes from the August 1, 2012 Planning Board meeting. During that meeting TCI received the board’s approval to expand its office space. That was just hours before the fire broke out. According to the minutes, when asked if anything new would be going on at the site, Mr. Sullivan said no.
Mr. Ocean told Mr. Sullivan that would have been a good time to mention PSS. Mr. Sullivan said that PSS had been there for more than two years.
“But for me, it doesn’t build much confidence,” replied Mr. Ocean.
The lack of a fire suppression system at the destroyed building also concerned the Planning Board.
Mr. Sullivan said the building was issued a certificate of occupancy in 1987, and according to town code, should have had a fire suppression system. The current owners bought the company in 2006. Mr. Hemlock joined the partnership in 2009.
“Didn’t this come up as part of your due diligence in buying TCI,” asked Mr. Machiz, “that you bought a… business that should have had a fire suppression system?”
Mr. Ocean said a safety officer within the company should have noticed the lack of the fire system, given the materials being worked with.
Mr. Sullivan said that the oil in the facility is very stable.
“But there were 660 gallons of sodium in the building,” said Mr. Ocean.
Mr. Machiz asked about the state fire investigation report, which said the fire was accidental and suggests the cause may have been PSS employees who may not have known the temperature at which sodium ignites and left a heater on when they stopped work the evening of the fire.
“This disturbs me just as much as it does you,” said Mr. Hemlock.
Mr. Machiz also brought up a permit TCI requested from the state Department of Environmental Conservation in June of last year that would have allowed the company to process transformers containing regulated oil with higher concentrations of PCBs (50-499 ppm). Currently, TCI may only process transformers containing un-regulated oil. The company says regulated transformers were brought to the site only for transport to a site permitted to process them. TCI withdrew its permit request last November after the application was publically disclosed by local residents concerned about the plant.
Mr. Hemlock said that processing oil with higher concentrations of PCBs would make his operation more efficient and create jobs because more transformers could be recycled at West Ghent.
Planning Board member Geoffrey French told Mr. Hemlock that Town Attorney Ted Guterman said this would not be allowed under town code.
Mr. Machiz added that he wants TCI to understand that the processing of transformers containing regulated oil “is off the table.”
Mr. Hemlock said that they are not applying for that work right now, but that it would be a mistake not to discuss it.
Mr. Hemlock also went through a packet he handed out to the board which addressed some of the questions Planning Board members had raised at the previous meeting. The packet says that a review of EPA enforcement data online at www.epa-echo.gov/echo, shows the company’s compliance record is cleaner than “a local museum, an assisted-living facility, a commercial farm, even the county’s own wastewater treatment system.”
Mr. Machiz told Mr. Hemlock that he will want TCI to be forthcoming throughout the permit application review. “The last time we gave a permit and it was not sufficiently conditioned,” said Mr. Machiz. “That is not going to happen this time.”
Last week also saw the Ghent Town Board addressed the TCI situation its February 7 workshop session. Mr. Guterman, who was present at the Town Board meeting, said that there is more information the Planning Board will need to collect before the application is deemed complete. Once it’s complete, state Environmental Quality Review Act guidelines will be followed and a public hearing will be scheduled.
Though Town Supervisor Larry Andrews said that workshop meetings do not normally include a public comment period, he gave residents in attendance an opportunity to speak.
Patti Matheney and Kara Switzer both expressed concern about a temporary trailer at the TCI site, questioning whether the trailer was only used as part of the cleanup. Ms. Matheney said that trucks coming in and out are labeled “PCBs.”
Planning Board member Geoffrey French said he assumed the trailer was being used by the engineers or DEC to oversee the cleanup. “If they are conducting business out of there or running their operations out of there,” he said, “that is definitely not what we thought it was being used for.”
A spokeswoman for TCI said this week the company had no comment on the use of the trailer.
When resident Chris Bishop asked if an inspector could be sent on a daily or weekly basis, Mr. Andrews said that it’s a possibility.
The next Ghent Town Board meeting is scheduled for February 21 at 7:30 p.m. The next Planning Board meeting will be March 6 at 7 p.m.