Lawyer slams plan to prevent TCI-type infernos

Challenge to report doesn’t sway head of environment council
W. GHENT–Bill Better, attorney for TCI of NY, has accused the county Environmental Management Council of statements that “needlessly and recklessly damage TCI’s reputation.” But the head of the council responded this week that the source of the statements–a report setting out proposed recommendations designed to protect the county from huge and potentially dangerous fires like the one that destroyed the TCI plant a year ago–deserves consideration by county officials.

In a letter addressed to Environmental Management Council (EMC) Chairman Ed Simonsen last week, Mr. Better disputes the contents of the EMC memo containing the recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors, saying that the document contains “numerous factual and analytical errors.” The TCI lawyer also blasts the EMC for failure to invite TCI to any of the council’s meetings, share a copy of the report before its release, or consult TCI directly while assembling the recommendations.

The EMC was created in 1974 to advise the county on matters pertaining to the environment. The current members of the council began work on a report after the massive TCI blaze last August, which not only destroyed the company’s facility but also led to air quality concerns in much of the county and in Massachusetts due to the possibility of contamination from PCBs in the oil from old electrical transformers that TCI prepares for recycling. The EMC said it wanted local government to prevent similar events, and it’s four-page memo, approved unanimously by the council at the end of June, calls for certain steps for projects or businesses that use hazardous materials including:

•A review of the use by an independent environmental firm
•A risk analysis
•Referrals to the county Planning Board and Health Department
•Unannounced inspections by qualified chemical engineers
•More detailed record keeping.

“Your memo is deeply flawed and does everyone a disservice,” Mr. Better wrote. “It is rife with inaccuracies, misstatements of fact and general falsehoods about our operations, about local ordinances and about state and federal oversight.”
Mr. Better takes exception with the EMC referring t the fire as an “environmental incident.”
“Fortunately, it was nothing more than a fire,” he states, adding that no PCB contamination was detected by state and federal agencies after the event.

Mr. Better also challenged EMC statements that the company should have obtained approvals prior to using a method of destroying PCBs in oil drained from transformers that required sodium, a substance that reacts violently with water. “The Town requires no such approvals and there is no office or official who is prepared to issue them,” states Mr. Better in his response to the EMC’s memo. “The idea that TCI needed such approvals… is entirely imaginary,” he wrote.

For two years TCI had a subcontractor called Power Substation Services operate at its West Ghent site processing oil with sodium, though town officials were unaware of this agreement. Reports from the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control suggest that the fire last August originated where Power Substation Services had conducted sodium processing. There was also a smaller fire in a truck trailer at TCI in January 2012 that investigators suggested may have been linked to sodium.

The EMC memo to the county stated that residents and firefighters were “exposed to danger due to negligence.” But Mr. Better said in his letter that no firefighters were harmed that August night, adding that the fire department “was fully aware of the sodium.” The presence of the contractor and the sodium were mentioned in the investigation report from the January fire.

Investigators believe that water spayed on the August 2012 blaze reached sodium and may have caused the large explosions that occurred just after firefighters retreated from their positions near the TCI plant.

Mr. Better also disputed the EMC’s statement that a large amount of PCBs may have been released into the air during the August 1, 2012 fire, saying, “This is simply not the case.”

The company’s attorney wrote, “Less than 5% of materials on site the night of the fire involved PCBs, and most of that was non-regulated trace amounts.” Non-regulated PCB materials are those containing less than 50 parts per million (ppm). Mr. Better added that the company did not process materials having higher levels of PCBs.

On the issue of TCI not having a fire suppression system, Mr. Better wrote, “We were up to code,” adding that many other businesses in the county with more dangerous materials lack fire suppression. But his statements appears to contradict one made by TCI engineer Mike Sullivan, who spoke to the town Planning Board in February. At that time, Mr. Sullivan said that according to the local building code, the TCI building should have had a fire suppression system installed when it was constructed.

TCI representatives have said that a replacement building would have advanced fire suppression systems, but the company is now considering whether to relocate, reportedly outside the county.

Taking up a broader point, Mr. Better said many of the EMC’s recommended regulations would duplicate existing federal and state rules. “The county likely doesn’t need a second layer of oversight of this nature, and it would be costly, not to mention unnecessary,” he wrote.

In an email to the Columbia Paper earlier this week, Ms. Simonsen said that due to the increase of technological advancements that rely on hazardous material, regulation is a responsibility of all levels of government. “No longer can we count on state and federal agencies to provide the protections needed,” Mr. Simonsen wrote. “The recommendations contained within the EMC memorandum have been discussed and modified by a team of competent caring individuals. We believe these recommendations deserve due consideration by all those individuals that are sworn to protect the health and welfare of Columbia County citizens.”

The county Board of Supervisors has received the EMC recommendations but has taken no action on them.

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