EDITORIAL: This fire’s not over yet

THE PEOPLE WHO GATHERED last week at the West Ghent Firehouse wanted answers. They wanted to know whether the fire at the TCI of New York building just up Route 9H from the firehouse had poisoned their children, their land, their food and water. They listened politely for a while to state, federal and local officials who responded to the fire and its immediate aftermath–exactly the people you’d want to talk to after what one responder called “probably the worst fire Columbia County has ever had.”

The meeting, called by Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D), lasted almost three hours. The crowd applauded the bravery and competence of the responders. The health and environmental experts repeated assurances that the fire did not release dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals.

Yet at the end, some leaving the firehouse seemed more angry, confused, dissatisfied and scared than when they arrived. They have good reason to be.

TCI disassembles old electrical transformers–the big cylinders you see on utility poles–and sends the parts off to be recycled or disposed of somewhere else. The transformers contain oil and that oil contains PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls. PCBs are now linked to birth defects and cancer, among other threatening properties. And if transformer oil burns, the PCBs burn too, a process that creates even more toxic substances, including dioxins. During the Vietnam War dioxin was called Agent Orange.

We need people willing to clean up after humanity’s chemical mess, so TCI serves a useful function. It also appears to have complied with reporting and safety standards. But those standards now look woefully inadequate to protect firefighters and other responders in an emergency, let alone the people who live near an operation that conducts this dangerous work.

One remedy for that is better regulation, and people at the meeting called for stricter rules. Critics would say more regulation raises costs and hurts business. The residents of this county might feel differently if new regulations could spare our communities from enduring similar fires.

Even as the fire burned, teams from the state health and environmental conservation departments along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted tests to determine whether PCBs were being released into the atmosphere from the plume of smoke that drifted in several directions as winds shifted.

Time after time the experts have said that the tests revealed no elevated levels of PCBs except modest pollution at the plant. They say scientific principles dictate that if there is no sign of PCBs, then dioxins cannot be present. Undoubtedly, the experts are correct based on the 50 samples they collected at varying distances and directions from the fire. They say the number of samples confirms that there’s no contamination, no cause for concern.

Then the toxicologist on the panel said that she and her colleagues know a lot about PCB pollution because of a fire at a state office building in Binghamton. She was referring to a 1981 incident in which transformers burned and poisoned that structure. Maybe she didn’t know that the governor at the time said the building was so safe he would go inside and drink a glass of PCBs to prove it. It was a foolish, irresponsible statement. The cleanup took 13 years.

Or consider the SUNY New Paltz campus, where transformers burned in several dorms, the cleanup was pronounced a success and students returned. Then a reporter stuck a cotton swab in a student lounge air vent and tests showed the vent dangerously contaminated with PCBs. More cleanup followed.

How about initial government and industry assurances about the “harmless” PCBs in the Hudson River or the lack of concern over the Dewey Loeffel Landfill in the Rensselaer County, where pollution has reached the Valatie Kill. The science is sound as far as it goes but soothing words aren’t science, they’re politics. They gloss over uncertainty and the limits of our knowledge. They spawn mistrust not understanding.

We will never get answers to all the questions about this fire and its effects. But citizens have a right to expect that the county’s worst fire in modern memory will receive more than a “we’ve-done-all-we-can” brush-off from government agencies.

Ms. Barrett admirably took the lead in starting the process and exposing how much remains to be done. Now we need government commitments to wider, long-term monitoring and detection. And we must have thorough, public review of the testing done so far to determine how much it really tells us.

 

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