Planning Board calls fire suppression details after towering blaze
GHENT–The town Planning Board began its environmental review last week of the application by TCI of New York to rebuild its industrial recycling operation that was destroyed in a fire and explosion last summer.
TCI Vice President of Operations Brian Hemlock and engineer Mike Sullivan attended the Wednesday, January 2 Planning Board meeting to answer questions from the board members regarding the company’s site plan application to rebuild their facility at the West Ghent site. Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Walters said this was the beginning of what will be a long process.
TCI’s Falls Industrial Park Road Drive facility burned and exploded in a huge fire in early August that generated a plume of smoke and caused air quality alerts in Columbia County and around the region.
The Planning Board told the TCI representatives at the meeting to submit more information about the company’s plan, including more details about the handling of PCBs as well as about permits from regulatory agencies for the Ghent facility. The board also wants an organizational chart of company ownership and details on the fire suppression system for the proposed site, which TCI failed to include with its site plan application.
Chairman Walters told Mr. Sullivan that he wants TCI to resubmit its basic application because he wanted it made more clear what types of materials the company will be dealing with. “We need to be crystal clear about what’s being processed at this plant,” said Mr. Walters.
Mr. Hemlock said that only old electrical transformers containing “non-regulated” levels PCBs–concentrations of less than 50 parts per million (ppm)–have been processed at the Ghent facility. PCBs, the common name of polychlorinated biphenyls, are industrial chemicals now banned as a threat to human health and the environment.
TCI goes to customer sites to pick up the transformers, but only after testing them first to find out the PCB content, said Mr. Hemlock. If the concentration of PCBs is less than 50 ppm, the transformer is brought into the Ghent site to be drained, dismantled and shipped out to recyclers. If the transformers contain higher concentrations, the transformer is brought to the Ghent facility only for holding before the units are shipped to the company’s plant in Alabama.
“By regulation, we cannot do anything to those transformers,” said Mr. Hemlock. “We can only take them off the truck and hold them until we transport them elsewhere.”
He said transformers containing regulated PCB levels–greater than 50ppm–may only be held at the Ghent facility “for up to 10 days.”
Mr. Sullivan said regulated transformers would be stored in a space marked on the new site plan as Room 104, a 40-by-75 foot space “open at top to be exposed to fire suppression system.”
Mr. Hemlock said that over 95% of the transformers TCI picks up contain non-regulated PCB levels.
Town Attorney Ted Guterman asked about the company’s application last year before the fire to the state Department of Environmental Conservation seeking permission for TCI to handle regulated PCBs. When blogger Sam Pratt and community activist Patti Matheney made local officials aware of the company’s application, TCI withdrew the request.
Mr. Sullivan said the application would have allowed TCI to drain the regulated transformers at the West Ghent site instead of shipping them to Alabama. He said this became a secondary concern after the fire. “They became more focused on re-establishing their core business,” he said.
Mr. Guterman said he believes TCI’s application will be “grandfathered,” which will allow the company to continue processing unregulated PCB transformers because it had a preexisting nonconforming use under town zoning. But he said handling regulated PCBs is not permitted under the town code.
“I want to make it clear that you shouldn’t be building this facility thinking that after you get your permit, you’re going to go back to DEC and ask for a new use permit to handle regulated PCBs,” Mr. Guterman said. “If that’s your intent, then you shouldn’t be rebuilding.”
Planning Board members also faulted TCI for not submitting a fire suppression plan.
“I can’t imagine we would give you a pass on this without having gone through the system in exquisite detail,” said Planning Board member Larry Machiz. “If you were thinking of putting that at the back end of this process, I would suggest you rethink that.”
Mr. Sullivan agreed to get details about the plan to the board within the next two weeks. He said the new building’s low-expansion foam fire suppression system will be adequate and that the fire hazard will be considered moderate to low based on what’s being stored there.
Board Member Geoffrey French asked the size of the largest transformer brought into the building.
Mr. Hemlock said typically normal transformers contain 20-30 gallons, but the largest would contain a “couple hundred gallons.”
Mr. French also asked about the process of how the transformers are tested for PCB content. Mr. Hemlock said that the company does the sampling but sends the samples to a third party to get results. TCI has a proposal for a lab in their site plan. Mr. Hemlock says that his company does some testing on its own.
The force of the explosion in August was attributed to sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. An August 2 inventory submitted by TCI to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, listed 16 drums of sodium stored at the site by Power Substation Solutions (PSS), a partner company of TCI.
West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino said shortly after the fire that firefighters were initially unaware of the presence of sodium during the blaze. He had said that if it weren’t for an employee of TCI being on hand that night to warn them of the sodium, 50 or more people could have died.
Mr. Hemlock assured the Planning Board last Wednesday that “there will be no sodium onsite.”
Mr. Hemlock also said he would be open to more vigorous reporting of chemicals stored there. Current regulations only required TCI to submit an annual report.
At the end of the meeting, the Planning Board requested lead agency status for the environmental review of the project, which Mr. Guterman said would be a “coordinated review with other agencies,” including the DEC, the state Department of Transportation, and the Columbia County Departments of Health and Planning.
Mr. Sullivan agreed to get all of the requested information to the Planning Board well before the next Planning Board meeting scheduled for February 6 at 7p.m.