THIS WEEK’S AGREEMENT between lawyers for TCI of NY, the company responsible for what one veteran firefighter called the worst fire he’d ever seen in Columbia County, and lawyers for the Town of Ghent, the place where that fire occurred, is a hopeful sign.
TCI went to court hoping that Judge Jonathan Nichols would order the Ghent Planning Board to act on the company’s application to replace the building and equipment destroyed by that huge fire and accompanying explosions without further review. Instead, with the encouragement of the judge, the lawyers came to a temporary agreement that puts the TCI suit on ice for at least six months while TCI looks for a new home, most likely outside the county but in the state.
Like all durable agreements arising from disputes, each side had to give up something to get more, and neither could look like loser. If TCI finds a more welcoming community (the company swears it has several suitors), it won’t face a protracted legal battle in Ghent that will cost plenty and raise doubts about the company’s future. That type of uncertainty can seriously damage an otherwise sound business.
Ghent taxpayers can now expect a little break on the cost of legal bills, especially if TCI decides to pack up and go. But the town does face the loss of property tax revenue plus 16 or more jobs, and that’s not good. But most of those workers already leave the county daily, commuting to TCI’s temporary home at the Port of Coeymans in southern Albany County, and a TCI spokesman says the company’s intention is to “preserve our current workforce.”
The people who fear another fire or worse if TCI rebuilds in West Ghent will be pleased if the agreement leads to the company’s departure. And at least some town officials probably won’t shed a tear, either. If TCI remains the onus will be on the town to inspect the facility far more thoroughly and with the assistance of experts to ensure that safety standards are maintained; that could add up to big bucks, because the town can’t single out one company for special treatment. Taxpayers will foot the bill for the extra time, effort and expertise it takes to police local industry, and confronts the town with yet another dilemma: If Ghent’s standards for TCI set the regulatory bar too high, it could discourage other businesses from locating here.
TCI assured the town that this time it will install all the fire safety equipment it didn’t have before the big fire. Give them the benefit of the doubt; the company probably means to do it. But the town has been twice burned by TCI, literally, with two significant fires within eight months of each other last year, one in January 2012 in a truck trailer and the inferno last August. Official investigations of the two incidents indicate that both may have been caused by human error, and in both cases the errors were linked to a contractor firm working for TCI.
You can call the contractor’s workers a bunch of knuckleheads because they left an oven on overnight last summer, cooking an explosive substance to the point that it barbecued the building. But whatever the shortcomings of those workers, the responsibility for overall management at the site lies with TCI. Despite firing the contractor, TCI hasn’t made it clear how its own management has changed to thwart the next group of knuckleheads it works with.
The saddest part of this story is that TCI has a good environmental record doing a job that must be done. By all accounts it’s a loyal employer too, keeping people on the payroll after the big fire. And that hapless contractor? It was disposing of PCBs, a family of industrial chemicals that poses immense risks to human health and the environment, and it was using a new method that breaks down PCB into relatively safe materials instead of incinerating them, which only creates much worse poisons.
Let’s hope that this agreement provides the fig leaf that TCI needs to find a new home where it can make a fresh start. We can also hope it learns from its mistakes–that it doesn’t refrain from applying new ways to solve tough problems but that it goes about its business in a more responsible manner. The Ghent Town Board should sign the agreement with TCI as the best way to encourage the company to find a new home somewhere else.