GHENT–The crowd of concerned citizens was large enough last week for the Ghent Town Board to move its meeting from Town Hall to the nearby VFW hall so people could make their voices heard on issues regarding the August 1-2 fire at the TCI building in West Ghent. Residents expressed frustration that TCI has not been held more accountable and concern that the transformer recycling company plans to resume operations in Columbia County. They also had questions about tests done as part of the cleanup.
Both town engineer Ray Jurkowski and West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino were among those addressing questions from the residents.
Mr. Jurkowski said has been staying in contact with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to follow the site cleanup. The DEC is overseeing the cleanup, and Mr. Jurkowski, said the agency is satisfied with the cleanup protocol and methodology used at the site. He said that contractors working on the cleanup told him that “they feel that they’re approximately 50% done.” The daily reports submitted to both the DEC and the town include the work done each day, the materials taken off site, results of air and soil samples and tests of materials before they are removed from the site of the fire off Route 9H.
“What do the samples show?” asked one resident.
Mr. Jurkowski responded that the samples have shown either “no detects” for PCBs or levels below the threshold considered hazardous. The DEC posts those test results online at www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/84125.html.
Asked about the possibility that hazardous materials seeping into the groundwater, Mr. Jurkowski said that the soil samples would have caught that if it happened. Soil samples have been coming up negative for PCBs.
Residents challenged the lack of additional testing, a concern residents made loud and clear to state and federal officials at the August 16 meeting at the West Ghent Firehouse organized by Assembly member Didi Barrett (D). Many members of the community feel additional testing needs to be done for the toxic substances dioxins and furans, byproducts created when PCBs burn. But according to the DEC, “because all of the tests determined that PCBs and other contaminants are not present or present at low levels, no testing for dioxins or furans is necessary. Detectable levels of PCBs form the basis to determine the need to conduct additional tests for other potentially hazardous substances.”
Residents wondered whether TCI could be held more accountable. Many said they felt the company should not be allowed to reopen. Speakers cited the company’s history–there was a fire this winter, although no toxic materials were reported involved at that blaze–and the possibility of another event like last month’s fire.
Patti Matheney said that paperwork she obtained from the town says TCI agreed in the late 1980s to limit the PCB-contaminated materials it handles to those containing less than 50 parts per million (ppm). Transformers containing PCB concentrations of less than 50 ppm are considered non-PCB transformers.
But an inventory report submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency by TCI on August 2 stating what may have been at the site during the fire listed three transformers containing PCB concentrations of 930 ppm, 1,300 ppm and 1,600 ppm, respectively. The inventory also listed six bushings, each with 15 gallons of oil contaminated with PCBs of concentrations between 50 and 499 ppm.
“We probably don’t regulate them the way they should have been regulated,” said Ghent resident Mark Johnson.
In a recent email to The Columbia Paper, TCI Vice President of Operations Brian Hemlock said that the current owners bought the assets of TCI in 2006, when the company went out of business under the previous owners. He says that the company only accepts transformers that contain less than 50 ppm of PCBs to put through the recycling process. According to Mr. Hemlock, the process is conducted in “an environmentally sound manner by draining the fluids, separating the metals, sending the metals to smelters, and recycling the remaining components. This multi-stage process benefits the environment in that non-functioning transformers are deconstructed and its parts are reused to the fullest extent possible.”
“This is a poor community, exactly the kind of community this kind of company looks for,” said one resident. “We have to protect ourselves from this type of situation happening again.”
Resident Doug Johnson added, “No matter about regulations, no matter about rules, no matter about who did what, it’s a question of trust.”
In his email, Mr. Hemlock wrote that TCI does plan to rebuild in Ghent and will “embrace significant advancements in technology and architecture” in constructing its new building. He wrote that the company adheres to all state and federal safety regulations, and “the building that was destroyed in the incident complied with all applicable building codes.” According to Mr. Hemlock, the operation in West Ghent was small by industry standards. TCI has about 20 employees, all of whom have remained on the payroll since the fire. He said that their “recycling services help reduce the total number of transformers and other antiquated electrical equipment that end up in landfills.”
Ghent Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Walters said his board has not received an application from TCI to rebuild but that TCI would have to submit a full site plan. “Nothing is going to be automatic,” he said of the review and approval process.
Town Attorney Ted Guterman assured those in attendance that the Planning Board would be sensitive to all of the issues raised.
Mr. Guterman also addressed reports that no one from the Ghent Town Board attended the forum called by Ms. Barrett in West Ghent. “The Town of Ghent was well represented at that meeting,” said Mr. Guterman. He said that he, the town engineer, the zoning enforcement officer and some members of the planning and zoning boards had attended.
No town officials responded to a request at the West Ghent meeting asking local officials to identify themselves.
West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino was also on hand last Thursday to talk about the night of the fire. He said that he had no idea that the TCI building housed sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. The sodium was being stored at the facility by a partner company of TCI’s called Power Substation Services. Chief Cesternino was thankful that a TCI employee was on hand that night to inform the fire company of the sodium. The chief said that 50 or more people could have died that night if they had not known about the sodium.
As the blaze died down, it was finally extinguished with foam, some of which was brought in from an Air Force base near Schenectady. Chief Cesternino said that the county has a foam bank but it is water-based and not meant for chemical fires. When firefighters realized they were dealing with something far more dangerous, they decided to move personnel out of harm’s way and let it burn.
“Once it’s beyond control, you just have to stand back and keep everybody safe,” he said.
The next Ghent town board meeting is scheduled for October 18 at 7:30 p.m.