Meeting on TCI fire airs misgivings about chemical exposure
W. GHENT–The West Ghent Firehouse was packed Thursday evening, August 16, with concerned citizens hoping to get answers about the August 1 industrial fire at the TCI of New York company off Route 9H. Assembly member Didi Barrett (D-103rd) brought together a dozen officials from federal, state and local agencies to respond to the public’s questions and concerns regarding possible health and other impacts from plume of smoke from a blaze fueled mostly by oil containing PCBs.
Ms. Barrett said at the outset of the nearly three-hour gathering that she hoped it would be a positive experience consisting of open and civil communication, but acknowledged afterward that “this is obviously an issue that brings up a lot emotion, and understandably.” The event lost its structure early on, as the crowd of well over 120 residents was tense and people ignored the request that they submit their questions in writing, and instead voiced opinions and questions from the floor.
While many issues were brought up to the panel, local residents made clear their desire to have testing for the toxic substance dioxin, a byproduct created when PCBs burn. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are manmade chemicals once used in the types of old electrical equipment TCI dismantled and recycled or prepared for shipping to disposal sites at its West Ghent plant. Though now found throughout the environment, higher concentrations of PCBs are known to affect human health and fetal development and are suspected of causing some types of cancer.
Following the August 1 TCI fire, the state Department of Environmental Conservation collected samples around the site of the fire and in the region at more distant spots where officials believed air currents might have carried the smoke and the PCBs from the fire. Joe Crua of the state Department of Health, said at the forum that no PCBs have been detected in any of the off-site samples. Based on those results, the Department of Health determined there would be no need for additional testing.
When PCBs are burned, dangerous by-products such as dioxins can be produced. Health Department officials said that testing for the dioxins is not necessary if PCBs are not detected.
“When you detect PCBs, that gives you, depending on the level, justification to go further,” said Mr. Crua. “We didn’t detect any PCBs offsite.”
That did not satisfy the concerns of many who want the dioxin testing done, regardless of the results of the PCB tests. Many strongly urged that the additional testing be done. “When PCBs burn, they change form,” said one resident. “So if you’re looking for a PCB, you’re not going find it.”
Manna Greene, the environmental director for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, said that she’s familiar with PCBs from her organization’s work dealing with the PCBs in the Hudson River. “Are you actually testing for the full range of byproducts from incomplete combustion of PCBs, which does include dioxin?” she asked the panel.
Dr. Jan Storm, a toxicologist with the state Department of Health reiterated Mr. Crua’s reasoning, saying that finding no signs of PCBs gives her agency reason to believe there would be no dioxins detected through additional testing. She said that this reasoning is based on past experience. “New York State has a lot of experience dealing with PCBs,” she said.
James Wilcox of Chatham said that he understand the logic, but still feels the additional testing is necessary. He added that he will not buy local produce or even eat vegetables from his own garden until he’s confident tests show there are no dioxins.
“We need answers for our children,” said Ghent resident Courtney Powell. “None of us are going to stop until we get the answers we deserve.” Powell said that a week prior when she asked some of the officials whether they would eat a salad out of her garden, they did not respond.
Residents also wanted to know whether local officials were aware what was stored at the TCI facility before the fire. Bill Black, director of the Columbia County Emergency Management Office, said that companies are required by law to submit a report of every chemical they have. Officials said that firefighters did know that the plant handled oil containing PCBs. But Lt. Thom Lanphear of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office says that TCI is only required to submit a report annually, so the report that officials now have covers only what was at TCI in 2011. By law, TCI does not have to submit its 2012 report until March 2013, and Lt. Lanphear said that TCI provided the documents that current regulations require
Ms. Barrett said she would be open to pushing for stronger state laws dealing with annual reports so that inventories of chemical inventories can be more current.
Brian Hemlock, TCI’s vice president of operations, was scheduled to attend Thursday’s forum and give a presentation, but Ms. Barrett said that evening he could not make it due to a death in the family. She said TCI was invited to send another representative but that no one from the company was present.
“There’s no one from TCI even here?” said Mary Evans. “This is an insult to our community!” She said that she wanted to ask TCI if the company would be willing to provide equipment for first responders in case of another fire. She then left, saying that the meeting was a “waste of time.”
As the meeting continued, citizens questioned both the procedures of the testing as well as the results, calling for independent testing. Eric Daly of the federal Environmental Protection Agency defended the manner in which test samples were collected and processed. “We don’t gain anything from lying about data,” said Mr. Daly. “No one can change those results.”
Throughout the event, one woman repeatedly yelled: “Cover-up!”
“I’m not going to cover up anything,” said Lt. Lanphear. “It’s something that affects us as much as it affects you. We’re basing our information on the experts.”
Another subject that has elicited much discussion since the fire has been the lack of a reverse 911 notification system. Some Columbia County residents were notified of the fire by friends in Berkshire County, MA or Rensselaer County, both of which have reverse 911 systems that notify individual members of the public in case of an emergency.
“We dropped the ball, plain and simple,” said Lt. Lanphear. He said that he had begun looking at reverse 911 systems the few days before the fire. In the wake of the fire, Columbia County now has the authorizations it needs to offer the free state system called NY Alert, but residents must register first in order to receive notifications. Lanphear urged everybody to go to the website nyalert.gov as soon as possible to register. “Register your cell phone, your home phone, you work phone, your email, whatever you have to be notified,” he said.
Bill Black also explained why residents close to the fire were not evacuated or notified immediately as firefighters found they could not extinguish the blaze with the available equipment. State police officers as well as sheriff’s deputies had begun to go door-to-door to notify nearby residents of the need to evacuate, but a call to 911 about 20 minutes after responders arrived at TCI reported a home invasion by five individuals, possibly armed, was occurring on the road where officers were beginning the evacuation. Mr. Black said a deputy who responded was nearly run down by the alleged invaders, who subsequently fled into the nearby woods, heading toward the growing fire. To avoid the possibility that the fugitives might take an evacuating family hostage authorities shifted their plan and advised everyone to take shelter at home. All five individuals were eventually caught, the last one on the morning after the fire began.
As for TCI, many expressed their desire to keep the company from rebuilding.
“We are not equipped in these rural communities to deal with a major industrial fire,” said one resident. “You’re all saying we dodged a bullet, but let’s not set ourselves up for another one.”
Resident Mark Johnson later added, “I don’t know if we can kick TCI out, but if we do we’re going to need the help of everyone in the county.”
According to Keith Goertz of the DEC, tearing down what remains of the TCI building was scheduled to begin last Friday, August 17.
Captain Scott Brown of the New York State Police said he is “confident there was no criminality” involving the cause of the fire and that no incendiary device was involved. The investigation is continuing.