GHENT–The Town Board expressed gratitude and appreciation for Columbia County’s emergency responders and volunteer firefighters at its meeting last week, but not before hearing concerns from Ghent residents regarding the TCI industrial blaze.
The chemical blaze at TCI of New York in West Ghent began the night of Wednesday August 1 and resulted in a state of emergency being declared in Columbia County, the evacuation of residents within a half mile of the fire and a recommendation for residents within a 15-mile radius to stay indoors and cancel any outdoor activities. By the afternoon of August 2, the state of emergency was lifted and the advisory rescinded after officials said initial air quality tests did not detect hazardous materials, including PCBs.
At the August 2 town meeting, which took place only hours after the emergency declaration was lifted, Ghent residents expressed concern to the Town Board over delays in notifying the public of the emergency.
One resident said that her family was exposed to the air with their windows open for 10 hours before they found out at around 8 a.m. about the state of emergency. “Somehow,” she said, “we absolutely have to have something in place so that people are warned when there’s an emergency.”
Residents were upset that Columbia County does not have a “reverse 911” system, which notifies local residents of emergencies by delivering recorded messages to the telephone numbers of people who subscribe to the system.
“That seems terrible to me that that’s not a top priority,” said another resident. “I think that’s terrifying to think that we went all those hours with the windows open and nobody knowing anything about it.”
One resident said she found it disconcerting that she found out about the emergency from somebody in Berkshire County. Many Berkshire County residents received “robo-calls” via a reverse 911 system in that neighboring county in Massachusetts.
Another concern raised was whether TCI should resume its operations at the site along Route 9H and what the town can do to better protect itself and regulate the company. TCI also experienced a fire in January, though that incident was far less severe.
Town Attorney Ted Guterman said the state Department of Environmental Conservation oversees the safety of these types of operations. “They do have certain permits from DEC, and basically DEC regulates them and they have to renew those permits on a periodic basis,” said Mr. Guterman. “We don’t have any regulatory authority.”
In a statement released Thursday, TCI of New York Vice President of Operations Brian Hemlock said that the company “is in full compliance with all regulations.” He also said that the company’s intent is “to rebuild our facility, and we are continuing business operations without interruption.”
Town Supervisor James Andrews told those at the meeting that their concerns would be passed on to the appropriate authorities and addressed. He went on to praise the volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel involved.
“We have a lot of volunteers who are experts, not just the paid professionals,” said Mr. Andrews. “I think it showed today.”
In reading a statement from the board expressing gratitude to all who played a part in responding to and handling the situation, Mr. Andrews said, “While keeping the safety of the residents of the Town of Ghent and surrounding areas their first priority, the emergency responders professionally handled what could have been a volatile situation. They remained ready for any possible situation.”
He continued, “In a peaceful area like the Town of Ghent, we are humbly reminded of what we sometimes take for granted. The unselfish acts of members of volunteer fire companies, risking their own lives to protect ours, is something we are grateful for, and something we will always appreciate.”
Also at the August 2 meeting the board adopted five new local laws:
•Local Law #5 allows for building a second residence on one lot without meeting the zoning requirements. The second residence cannot be larger than two-thirds of the existing residence, unless the lot is 10 acres or more. Also, building a second residence would cause a restriction in any further subdivision of the lot. Town Attorney Guterman said, “Particularly, we think that it’s going to apply for folks that want relatives to come in and basically take care of them, and can’t meet zoning requirements”
•Local Law #6 increases the penalties for residents who do not have their dogs licensed. Under the new law, first violations will result in a fine of not less than $100 and not more than $250. Each subsequent violation would result in fines of not less than $100 and not more than $500. Previously fines were limited to $50
•Local Law #7 involves setbacks in regards to personal ponds. It also requires a town permit to create a pond
•Local Law #8 establishes fines for residents who do not adequately confine their farm animals to their own property. Town officials say they’ve received complaints in recent years of farm animals straying onto the property of neighbors. Under the new law, the zoning enforcement officer will investigate complaints, and if appropriate, issue a warning to the owner of the farm animals. If there is further violation, the owner is subject to a fine not exceeding $250 for a first violation and a fine not exceeding $500 for each subsequent violation
•Local Law #9 clears up what is considered approval from the state Department of Transportation regarding ingress and egress of locations.
In other business this week, the board:
•Stated that the Turnpike Inn is sending in a renewal request for its liquor license for another two years, which will make a total of 37 years
•Heard from Supervisor Andrews that the Ghent Food Pantry helped record numbers of people in July. The July statistics were 88 families, 123 children, 170 adults and 18 seniors.
The Ghent Town Board began the meeting Thursday with a moment of silence for Sharon Perry, community volunteer and co-director of the food pantry, who died August 1.