THE SILENCE WAS CREEPY last Thursday morning in Chatham. Under a clear blue sky, village streets like mine, which normally see a steady trickle of cars and pedestrians, were deserted. Twelve hours after the fire erupted that destroyed the TCI of New York factory in West Ghent, it seemed like everybody had heard the news: People living within 15 miles of the fire should stay inside, turn off their air conditioners and remain alert symptoms that could indicate exposure to toxic chemicals the blaze might release.
The dog heard the clopping first, an unmistakable sound. Down the empty street came a horse pulling a large wagon with an awning on top. Underneath sat a handful of people. At a glance many of them looked like children. The wagon moved on at a walker’s pace, no traffic pressed in, nothing but hooves on the pavement. A half day after the incident began, it turns out not everyone had received word of it or cared to heed the advisories.
Three hours later local, state and federal officials lifted the recommendation to stay indoors and ended the state of emergency here. The initial tests showed no signs of contamination, and this week the federal Environmental Protection Agency reported that the site of the fire shows only one spot where toxic chemicals called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) exceeded what are currently believed to be acceptable levels.
Local officials must demand further tests with results made public. Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-103rd) public meeting scheduled for next Thursday, August 16, at 6:30 p.m. at the West Ghent firehouse on Route 9H is a good first step. Let’s hope that more thorough research supports the initial findings. But the state and federal agencies conducting the tests don’t have a stellar record when it comes to assessing the threat from PCBs. These chemicals, classified as probable carcinogens, can disrupt human hormone systems and pose significant dangers to fetal development. They still linger in the Hudson River. The Dewey Loeffel Landfill in the Town of Nassau, now a federal Superfund site, contains thousands of gallons of PCBs, and some have seeped into the Valatie Kill. In Massachusetts parts of Pittsfield were heavily polluted with this oily material. At one time or another the public was told not to worry about contamination at these places. It’s little wonder that people are now skeptical and scared.
What makes us all the more edgy is that many Columbia County residents were the last to learn of the emergency, receiving official notice indirectly or not at all until the worst was over. In part that’s because this county does not yet offer what’s called a “reverse 911” system. In Rensselaer County, for example, people who subscribe to the system received “robo-calls,” automated warnings to stay indoors, with messages delivered by phone (reverse 911) or by email or text or a host of other ways… or all of them at once. And they got it for free.
The same notification service works for severe weather and other emergencies. It’s called NY-Alert and it’s run by the State Emergency Management Office. In counties that join the service, residents sign up online or over the phone and tell NY-Alert how they want to be notified.
NY-Alert says that training county employees to operate their end of the system takes “a couple of hours.” And like subscribers, counties can use the service without charge. What’s more, counties can set up special notification networks, for example one that reaches students at Columbia-Greene Community College in the event of an emergency there.
Lt. Thom Lanphear of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office told our reporter Matthew Bathrick that he had been working on setting up a NY-Alert system for the county last week in the days before the fire at the TCI factory. That effort should be redoubled now that it’s clear how critical such a system is to public safety.
There is one catch. Once the system is operational, the county has an obligation to do what it takes to inform the public that it’s available and convince people to subscribe.
No system is foolproof, and there will always be people who, sometimes for reasons beyond anyone’s control, fall through the cracks. But there is no excuse now for any delay in joining NY-Alert and using all its facilities to prepare for the next emergency. I hope the need for the new system is a long way off, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.