PICKING THE TOP STORY of the year isn’t rocket science. We don’t cover foreign affairs, national or state events unless they directly affect this county. The choice boils down to what local story most affected the lives and pocketbooks of our neighbors. In 2012, that story was the fire at TCI of New York, Inc., facility in West Ghent and the questions that remain in its aftermath.
The blaze that started on the night of August 1 produced a towering plume of smoke that sent soot and pollutants over at least three counties in New York and Massachusetts. It also led to what one fire official called the worst blaze he’d ever seen in the county, and the explosion of sodium metal stored at the building nearly cost the lives of dozens of firefighters unaware that such dangerous material was there.
Residents within 15 miles of the site, an area containing a majority of the county’s residents, were advised to remain inside for hours after the fire started, because the facility stored PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). These materials are so hazardous to human health and the environment that manufacturing them was banned nationwide in the 1970s. But huge amounts remain in old electrical equipment and in the ground and water. And when PCBs burn they release new, even more toxic substances.
The fire also revealed that the county lacked a modern system to warn residents of emergencies like the TCI fire. That has now been remedied, and warnings now go out automatically to all landline phones in the county. The same warnings can reach mobile phones via text or voice and send email and other digital messages to residents who contact the county’s Code Red service through www.columbiacountyny.com or by calling 518 828-1212 or 828-1263.
Does any of this have relevance for the county in 2013? The fire was extinguished and state experts have assured the community that no contamination from PCBs have been detected in West Ghent or at other spots tested around the county, though there is reason for people to remain skeptical about the thoroughness of the testing. And now the company wants to rebuild so it can restart its work of separating PCBs from old equipment and shipping the materials elsewhere for disposal.
At face value, that sounds like a good thing. TCI employs local workers and there is no evidence to suggest that the PCB recycling process — something that can benefit all of us — has been conducted in a careless or unsafe manner. But the company had two fires in 2012 at that West Ghent facility; the first one, on January 25, 2012, burned in two open dump trailers. The second was the August 1 – 2 blaze and explosion.
Add to that the research conducted by Ghent resident Patti Matheney, who has informed town officials that TCI filed a lengthy application earlier this year with the state Department of Environmental Conservation for what appeared to be an expansion of its status as a handler of PCB materials even as the company was assuring the town that it planned no changes in its operations. The company has since withdrawn that application, and its vice president explained its actions by saying that the regulations involved are “highly technical and invite misinterpretation.”
Really? So does that mean the company thinks town officials aren’t smart enough to evaluate whether what TCI wants to do will meet town regulations?
The company also calls its application to the state “separate and unrelated” to its request for permits from to the town to begin rebuilding. Maybe the town should determine what’s related and what isn’t.
Last summer TCI put the lives of local volunteer firefighters at risk. And after a fire and explosion that drew national attention, the company did not inform town officials of proposals made to the state that might well have bearing on its application before the Town of Ghent to rebuild. That’s an odd way to build trust and acceptance in the community.
The Town Board and the Ghent Planning Board have an obligation to protect the safety of citizens and firefighters. In light of what is now known, it only makes sense for the town to step back and conduct a full environmental impact review of the TCI project before any business activity resumes at the West Ghent site. That may be the only way to ensure that TCI doesn’t become the biggest story of the new year too.