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Report adds new twist to TCI fires

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Sodium could have played role in two blazes
W.GHENT–Six months before a massive fire and explosions destroyed the TCI of NY facility off Route 9H last August and triggered a state of emergency throughout the county there was another, smaller fire at the site in a truck trailer. Recently released documents on the investigation of that earlier fire indicate it might have been caused by the same materials believed to have triggered the catastrophic blaze in August.

Questions about the causes and circumstances of the August fire have repeatedly been raised at meetings in Ghent addressing TCI’s application to rebuild and resume operations here. And now the newly released information on the earlier fire has spurred more debate as the town considers the company’s application and its plans to prevent fires in the future.

A fire investigation report completed in February 2012 by the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC) says that the fire at TCI of NY in January of last year may have been caused by materials handled by PSS, or Power Substation Services, a licensed contractor for TCI operating at TCI’s West Ghent facility.

TCI prepares old electrical transformers for recycling by draining the oil from them and then dismantling the transformers. PSS processed the oil to destroy PCBs, using liquid sodium metal. But liquid sodium reacts “violently with water” and is capable of “spontaneous combustion in moist air,” according to the report on the earlier fire.

That report, which followed the investigation of the January 25, 2012 fire, suggests two possible causes: spontaneous heating caused by PSS materials or a chemical reaction of mixing PSS and TCI materials. The investigation found that the flames began in a dump trailer outside of the TCI building full of waste products from TCI operations, including “oil soaked wood and cardboard removed from transformers.” Video recorded by security cameras shows that a forklift picked up a “fifty-five gallon drum of debris” from the PSS area of the facility and dumped it “into the front portion of the driver’s side” of the trailer where the first flames were seen.

The fire report states that John Howe, the county’s chief deputy fire coordinator at the time, testified to investigators that there were “violent reactions to the water” consisting of “popping noises and pyrotechnical displays,” while firefighters battled the trailer fire. That language is strikingly similar to descriptions of the August fire provided by West Ghent Fire Company Chief James Cesternino to investigators looking into the August blaze.

In both cases the witnesses described “popping” sounds and intense fires.

The Columbia Paper obtained a copy of the documents from Ghent resident Patti Matheney of citizen’s group GhentCANN. Ms. Matheney requested the report and other materials under the state’s Freedom of Information Law. Reached by phone this week she said finds it “interesting that even after the fire in January, TCI didn’t have fire suppression or smoke alarms.” She added that she feels the fire report “shows how mismanaged they were.”
A statement issued by Ms. Matheney says that “while PSS had been storing sodium, used to process PCBs, at their facility for two years, TCI took no steps toward acquiring proper permits from the Town of Ghent or notifying our volunteer firemen of the potential risks. Only after the fire at TCI on January 25, 2012, did fire investigators uncover the sodium.”

After the August 1 fire, when TCI’s facility burned and exploded, creating thick black plumes of smoke which caused air quality alerts in the county and surrounding region, state OFPC officials found that one possible cause of that fire was a sodium heater left on by PSS workers when they left work for the day.

TCI has since announced the company has severed its ties with PSS. A TCI spokesman declined to comment on the latest information.

Toward the end of the January fire report a paragraph states that TCI provided information on materials used by PSS including sodium in transformer oil, saying that it reacted “violently with water. Copies of the whole report were sent to West Ghent Fire Chief Cesternino, State Police Investigator William Mulrein and Jim Van Deusen, the county fire coordinator at the time.

During the August blaze, firefighters were training water from their hoses on areas of the TCI facility used by PSS where the sodium was stored. Fire Chief Cesternino said he was unaware of the presence of sodium in the building. It was only after TCI employee Tim Coons informed the chief of the sodium and explained the danger of dousing it with water that the chief withdrew all personnel from near the fire. Moments later the explosions occurred.

The evacuation was successful and no one was injured.

At a Ghent Town Board meeting after the August fire, Chief Cesternino said they were “hoping for a contents fire” and that the sodium was not compromised when they attempted to “surround and drown” the blaze with water. He said 50 or more people could have died that night if they were not alerted about the sodium by Mr. Coons.

Sam Pratt, who first reported the contents of the January fire report on his blog at sampratt.com, said during a phone interview that the fortunate notification from Mr. Coons the night of the August fire “should have been unnecessary, assuming that report was received by all the people it was sent to,” referring to the report of the January fire which warned of the sodium. He said he feels the information is important since it shows there may have been a lack of communication somewhere. But he says the responsibility ultimately lies with TCI.

“They knew what was going on in their own building,” said Mr. Pratt. “As far as I could see, they took no additional safety measures.”
A phone call to Chief Cesternino seeking comment was not returned.

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