County Environmental Management Council calls for action
HUDSON–The Columbia County Environmental Management Council has assembled a list of recommendations for the county and its municipalities to consider as ways to prevent another huge industrial fire like the one at the TCI of NY facility in Ghent last August 1. The recommendations, included within a memorandum approved by the EMC late last month, suggest stricter regulations regarding operations “which would produce or handle toxic or potentially toxic substances.”
But the fate of the recommendations is not clear. Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook), chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said last week that the county will not take any action on the recommendations.
“That would be something that the individual towns and villages would have to legislate if they chose to,” he said earlier this week during a phone call. The EMC, Mr. Grattan said, “is an advisory board, not a legislative board.”
The EMC’s role is to advise the county on matters pertaining to the environment. It was created in 1974 by the Board of Supervisors pursuant to the Local Environmental Protection Act.
TCI’s West Ghent facility was destroyed in a massive fire and a series of explosions exactly a year ago, August 1 and 2, 2012. The blaze generated plumes of smoke and led to air quality alerts in throughout much of the county and in Rensselaer County and parts of western Massachusetts.
TCI of NY prepares electrical transformers for recycling by draining oil containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the equipment and dismantling them. Tests by the state after the fire was extinguished did not detect elevated levels of PCBs at the site or at locations tested downwind from the fire.
EMC Chairman Ed Simonsen said during a phone call earlier this week that the council began working on how to address the event shortly after the fire occurred. The council agreed in March to begin the report with recommendations and, after what Mr. Simonsen said was “11 or 12 versions,” a final report was approved by the EMC unanimously June 24. The next day he sent the document to the clerk of the Board of Supervisors. He and county Commissioner of Planning and Economic Development Ken Flood also brought it before the County Government Committee last Tuesday.
The report calls for a “rigorous SEQRA process” and review by an independent environmental consulting firm for proposed operations involving hazardous materials. SEQRA is a reference to the state Environmental Quality Review Act. The report also recommends a risk analysis “to determine benefits and potential detriments,” with referrals to the county Planning Board and the Health Department for these reviews.
The EMC’s report also suggests provisions for unannounced inspections of facilities by qualified chemical engineers, more detailed record-keeping and monthly reports of materials that enter and leave these sites. The council’s memo states these records should be kept offsite.
“We certainly feel we followed due diligence,” said Mr. Simonsen.
In addition to the recommendations, the council’s memo contains a brief description of the August fire and outlines issues and questions raised by the event. The EMC criticized TCI in the document for showing “disregard for the safety of plant workers, the community, and the environment,” and finds fault with what it says is a lack of oversight “by any level of government.”
The EMC also advises that subcontractors not be permitted to operate onsite at these types of facilities without first approving a special use permit.
TCI has seen backlash from Ghent residents and town officials for having a subcontractor called Power Substation Services (PSS) operate at its West Ghent site. PSS processed oil contaminated with unregulated amounts of PCBS using sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. Fire reports from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control suggest PSS played a role in causing the August blaze as well as a smaller trailer fire at TCI in January 2012.
Asked if the Town of Ghent would give consideration to any of the EMC’s recommendations, Ghent Planning Board Chairman Jonathan Walters declined to comment because he had not yet read the document.
TCI was suing the Town of Ghent and the town Planning Board because town officials were considering restrictions on the company’s plans to rebuild its facility at 39 Falls Industrial Park Road just off state Route 9H in West Ghent. But last month TCI and the town reached an “tolling agreement” under which both sides agreed to suspend any legal action in the matter for at least the next six months while TCI attempts to find a new site out of the area where the company can rebuild.
The company currently operates temporarily from an industrial building in Coeymans in southern Albany County. A company spokesman said last month that as many as four other communities have invited TCI to relocate within their borders.