EDITORIAL: County must protect the public

FOR A FEW HOURS EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO the streets of Columbia County were deserted. People were warned to remain indoors. The air was a health threat, we were told. A column of black smoke visible for miles rose hundreds of feet into the air like some cheesy effect in a sci-fi apocalypse movie. But this was real.

A fire destroyed the metal building and other facilities in West Ghent of a company called TCI of NY. Local firefighters had backed away from the intense flames moments before the place exploded, narrowly avoiding tragedy. Residents were scared.

The fear has receded with time, but the need for action to prevent such an incident from recurring has only grown more urgent.
TCI’s business is collecting old electrical transformers, draining the oil used to cool the devices and shipping empty transformers to recyclers. Some of the transformer oil contains PCBs, hazardous manmade chemicals now banned. TCI was authorized to process PCB-laden transformer oil with PCB concentrations designated by the state as “unregulated,” and the company needed to dispose of the chemicals.

So without informing local officials, TCI brought in an outside contractor whose employees cooked the PCBs with very hot sodium metal, chemically altering the chemicals into much less dangerous substances. It’s an environmentally promising approach… if it’s handled properly.
In the winter of 2012 there was a spectacular fire at TCI, when a truck trailer went up in flames. Investigators suspect flammable materials placed near some of the sodium may have caused that blaze, but the fire didn’t lead to widespread damage and officials did not seek changes to prevent something similar from happening again at TCI.

Then came the fire last August 1. The blaze and explosions caused by water hitting sodium were so intense that emergency responders recall watching a huge storage tank shoot into the air, and the contractor’s sodium is again suspected as the cause of the fire; workers at the TCI site may have left some sodium heating in an oven while they went home for the day.

State and federal agencies called in as the August fire burned later reported that no elevated levels of PCBs were detected at the site or in samples taken where the smoke may have drifted. That’s small comfort. PCBs. linked to birth defects, developmental disabilities and cancer, are already in our bodies and our food from all sorts of sources, so it would be difficult to determine who was exposed to PCBs or their byproducts that might have been carried aloft from West Ghent last year. We just don’t know where the stuff went.

TCI says it is actively looking to relocate elsewhere, presumably outside Columbia County. The company currently operates from a temporary headquarters upstream and across the Hudson River from this county. The company should not be permitted to return to West Ghent, a position previously stated here.

Is TCI the only firm handling potentially life-threatening materials in this county? No one can say for sure. And that uncertainty prompted the county Environmental Management Council, appointed by the county Board of Supervisors, to develop a series of sensible recommendations aimed at reducing the chances that an incident like the one at TCI will happen again.

The council’s report has gone to a Board of Supervisors committee and has been reviewed by the county attorney, which sounds like the typical path followed by proposals leading up to consideration by the full board. But in our story this week Board of Supervisors Chairman Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook) inexplicably passed the buck, saying it’s up to individual towns and village to regulate toxic or hazardous materials.

Mr. Grattan must have forgotten that when TCI was burning, emergency officials defined a zone of concern stretching out 15 miles from the fire site. That zone included 15 of the 18 towns in Columbia County, plus the City of Hudson and all four villages. That makes this type of threat, by definition, a county concern, not a local one.

The TCI fire proved that what happens in Ghent could affect New Lebanon, Copake, Germantown and Kinderhook and everywhere in between. It’s a reminder that the Board of Supervisors has an obligation to act on behalf of all the people of this county. The supervisors have received recommendations designed to avert manmade disasters–recommendations submitted to them by their own Environmental Management Council. Failure to adopt those recommendations in some form would put the public at risk. It would be nothing short of reckless negligence.

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