If you put your half-full cans of paint, turpentine, gasoline, bleach or even household garbage into a barrel, then burned it in your own yard, you get fined.
But when the equivalent of dozens or even hundreds of burn barrels explode several hundred feet into the air, resulting in a fire and a huge plume that rages for the better part of a day, officials rush to assure everyone that it’s just fine.
Reports from the TCI of NY fire have repeated the reassuring claim that only one small drum of PCBs and a limited quantity of mineral oil were onsite at the time of the massive blaze.
Previously, report such as Tuesday’s Catskill Daily Mailarticle stated that “officials said the blaze began when a drum of PCBs, about 20,000 gallons of mineral oil and trucks somehow caught fire.” Other assurances from officials and the company have characterized the amount of PCBs onsite as small, and in low concentrations of 50 parts per million (ppm) or less.
But news reports from the past 24 hours paint a different picture. The Columbia Paper on Thursday includes an inventory said to have been supplied by TCI to the New York State DEC of “materials that may be present” in the building in their Falls Industrial Park Road facility in Ghent. That inventory includes:
“10 55-gallon drums of non-hazardous PCB mineral oil (<50 ppm PCB)”
“127,000 gallons of non-hazardous PCB containing oil (less than 50 ppm PCB within 16 large tanks”
Also inventoried are “60+ full transformers” and a “500-galon diesel fuel tank.” The Columbia Paper also says that a second company, Power Substation Solutions (PSS) was storing sodium, oil, nitrogen tanks and diesel on site, but the company has not yet been reached by EPA.
All told, that’s a great deal more than one small drum of PCBs and 20,000 gallons of mineral oil.
Meanwhile, The Albany Times-Union’s James Odato has obtained “records that showed some 50,000 pounds of PCB-containing materials and oils moving from the Ghent complex this year… The regulatory reports for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation show that TCI reported eight transactions involving about 50,000 pounds of transformers, fluids and other materials containing PCBs, including big shipments of petroleum oil or other liquid containing levels of 50 parts per million to 500 ppm, which is considered a hazardous concentration.”
The T-U article includes the same inventory as The Columbia Paper, but adds that “the company also reported having transported 2,700 pounds of ‘solid waste that exhibits the characteristics of ignitability’ this year.” A former company employee, Fran Vecellio of Kinderhook, is quoted at length in the article downplaying the severity of the fire.
Walter Hang, a prominent opponent of hydrofracking who also runs an environmental assessment firm, calls in the article “for a study of the toxic components in the soot because of the potential that PCBs went up in flames.” Neighbors of the facility interviewed by this site say that a visiting DEC official declined to take samples of oily clumps of material which fell on their decks, cars, lawns and into their pools—and were told instead to just wash or scoop these up. More on that soon.
A Ghent resident downwind of the TCI fire took these photos of unusual debris she noticed in the pond on her property several days after the emergency. She has called the New York State Department of Conservation to attempt to get a representative to visit the property.
Sherrell Jacobson, who for many years maintained a studio in the “sliver” building on the south side of Hudson’s 400 block, is having a two-day show of her work this weekend entitled Imperfections: The Stuff of Shez.
The show will include sculpture, collages, drawings, jewelry and found objects. It takes place from 12-6 on the weekend after next, Saturday August 11th and Sunday the 12th, at 848 West Main Street in Catskill, about 1 mile west of the train trestle on Route 9W.
Hudson resident Peter Seward, who has dealt with many materials and remediation issues on jobsites, points out that while the main focus of official concern regarding the TCI fire in Ghent has been PCBs, that questions ought to be raised about other pollutants as well.
Seward urges the public to also be mindful of “the fact that [what burned] was a hazardous waste site.” There ought to be, he says, an additional focus on waste oil, which “consists of bitumen by products which in turn consist of: arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead” and other worrisome components.
The question agencies such as DEC ought to be asked, Seward says, is: “Why is used oil regulated?” He further notes that
“Only through legal practices, and with set high temperatures, are such toxic things allowed to be burned. We, as a community, all may consider this... including the first responders, who, likely, suffer the most from the initial start of the fire until its demise. This isn’t a simple thing—very unlike what we have to deal with daily. This has been a real life hazardous waste fire. It requires thoughtful consideration, not bigotry and unnecessary ‘passing the torch’ to the state.”
One also wonders what other materials were onsite in the way of (for example) plastics, vinyl, metals, treated lumber, etc.; a waste handling structure is not built like an ordinary framed house.
Meanwhile, back on the PCB question, an environmental scientist in Kinderhook writes to a neighbor, after checking with a source familiar with utility companies’ practices for recycling transformers:
“TCI is considered a transfer station, in that they do not treat or incinerate the metal and the mineral oil. They send it elsewhere for destruction. The mineral oil contains the PCBs, and their permit should indicate the volume they are allowed to have onsite at any given time. If you know the maximum volume allowed, and the ppm limit for PCB, then you can get an idea of how much risk there is when the facility has a fire. Someone would have to do a ‘worst case’ modeling run to estimate exposure to surrounding environment and people.”
Part of the problem (per my interviews with DEC and DOH officials) is that none of these agencies appear to have any definitive idea of what was in or around the building at the time of the fire. Those agencies are either still trying to gather information—in the case of DEC, they have no shipping manifests for TCI in the public database after March of this year—or have made assumptions based on the company’s claims and others’ suppositions.
On Monday night, State and County officials released raw testing data related to the TCI fire in Ghent. No executive summary or other analysis was provided, except for broad assurances that the data was no cause for concern. Though a staffer at the State Department of Health stated that his agency was several days away from having such a document completed, officials went ahead with a call for an end to further testing.
Ghent resident Deborah Masters, who lives approximately 6 miles due east of the TCI fire site, has provided this site with an analysis of that technical data, after consulting with an engineering colleague. Masters ascertained that the limited testing was done by a company called Clean Harbors and processed by Adirondack Environmental Services in Albany. But when she spoke with a company rep (Tara Daniels) she would “only confirm their testing, and would not have any further conversation.”
In her opinion, using the PCB tests “as an excuse not to do further wipe tests on people’s properties is very strange,” yet typical of such agencies. “The very high levels of toxic fumes the residents may have breathed through their windows while sleeping,” she says, “were also never recorded.”
Masters writes that “the most troubling thing” about the situation “is not having air sampling from Thursday night or Friday day during the burn period of this fire. I suspect that there were samples taken, just not ones they are prepared to share with us.” She encourages residents to send Freedom of Information Law requests to the agencies responsible to attempt to secure that data.
Masters went on to discuss with her engineer the topic of
“why no VOC [Volatile Organic Compound] tests, which are more immediate tests, cheaper tests, and can’t be done once a hot fire is over, were never taken. Any mobile lab prepared for testing PCBs could easily test for VOCs.
“The other tests not taken, or at least not delivered to us, were tests for furans which result from burned plastics which the PCB byrms were made of (huge, heavy double-walled plastic bowls at the bottom of each PCB containment vessel—there would have been 4 or 5 of these within the facility), and for burning gas and oil which are both EPA-list carcinogens.
“The likely reason for very little soil residue is that very hot fires completely incinerate certain chemicals, which would include anything like toluene, turpentine, etc.
Regarding the presence of large amounts of mineral oil, Masters says that this “is used as a substitute in which to put PCBs after they are removed from the oil they used to be stored in.” She notes that only PCB sampling has been done, and that in at least one case the results ought to have led to more localized testing:
“They have tested for different kinds of PCBs, but the samples all read as ND (or non-detect), except for sample Aroclor 1260 which tested at 131 ppb (parts per billion), which is higher than the NYSDEC allowable limit of 100 ppb. This is one of the soil samples on the top left of the map. The over-the-limit level indicates that they should do grid sampling in that area to determine if there are oher high levels in that geographic area, but a wider area.
“They often use this kind of sampling to indicate that ‘there is no reason to do further sampling’ as all the samples, except one, are non-detect. However there are different soil and air samples from the map which have no indicated readings. These samples are listed on the map as AR, DT [and] DR. DT is listed in the legend as "dust track", and my engineer thinks the AR is at least an air sample, probably a troubling sample, as there is no information listed.
On a technical level, Masters explains for those trying to puzzle out these forms that the header “PCB TOTAL < 1.0 ug/100cm2” means less than 1 microgram per 100 centimeters squared. The notation “Surr.” means “surrogate,” indicating that the testing regimen used “a measured quantity of another chemical which acts as a control to verify the PCB sample methodology and specifies the percentage of recovery in the sample. So the sample of PCBs is spiked with the chemical surrogate, for accurate testing.” The abbreviation PQL means Practical Quanitation Limit, or the percentage range of recovery of materail from the sample.
Regarding the sampling of soil and surface water on the ground, Masters says that oils (found on a film on the water samples) were “collected by Westin Solutions on Thursday Aug 2nd and delivered to Accutest LabLink at 5:54 PM Saturday, Aug 4th. The wipe tests were collected on Friday Aug 3rd by Clean Harbors and analyzed by Adirondack Environmental Services between 12:20 am – 2:20 am Saturday Aug. 4.”
Masters says that her engineer agreed that citizens and officials should be on the lookout for the following:
Whether fire responders in the 9 different fire companys were properly notified of what was onsite before being sent to fight an inferno there;
Whether a sufficient Evacuation Plan was on file with the Office of Emergency Management, and whether citizen members were serving on that board;
Whether NYS DEC conducted sufficient inspections of the facility;
Whether TCI properly filed necessary reports to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory database, and the RTK database; and
Whether the community was properly notified of the potential catastrophe in progress.
Patti Matheney of GhentCANN passes along the word that a public meeting will be held next week to discuss the TCI fire in Ghent. The meeting has been organized by State Assembly member Didi Barrett, who reportedly has secured the agreement of local, County, State and Federal agencies to attend.
The meeting will be held at 6:30 pm on Thursday, August 16th at the West Ghent Fire Company, in the Commerce Park about a 1/2-mile south of Kozel’s just off 9H. “This is our opportunity to come together with our state and local officials and ask the questions many of us have,” writes Matheney, who helped secure the space for the meeting.
An official press release from Barrett is expected today. Attached here [PDF] is one of Barrett’s several letters sent to various agencies, such as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. In her letter she writes that she wants
“to hear directly from your office about the effects on agriculture, animals and home gardens of the chemical fire that took place at the TCI Inc. recycling plant on Thursday, August 2, 2012 in the Town of Ghent.[...] People feel they are not getting sufficient information.
Officials have been saying there should be no concerns about the air quality around the facility and that soot on their property should simply be washed away with soap and water. Many folks, especially those with young children, are uncomfortable with this response [...] It has now been several days since the incident and we need more definitive answers for those who live and farm in the area.
[...] This incident will have a profound impact on our small farms and will hurt our local agricultural economy if farmers feel as though they are not getting adequate information to make the right choices.
Barrett also notes that “there are several senior residences in the area near the fire and the health of those folks was put at risk by this situation, too. A great number of people and institutions need to make decisions about their families, residents, customers and so on but don’t feel they are getting adequate information to make those decisions. ”
Barrett, a Democrat, also is running for election this November for the newly-drawn 106th Assembly seat against Republican David Byrne (not that David Byrne). Barrett was elected for the first time in a special election last March, over GOP candidate Richard Wager, to fill the seat vacated by Marc Molinaro, who stepped down to become the Dutchess County executive.
This astonishing video was posted on YouTube and Facebook by resident Mark E. Johnson, showing a fireball/explosion over the TCI facility in Ghent last week. Be sure to click through to the comments on YouTube for more discussion of the fire, including several commenters who try to say this was no big deal.
And then there’s this, in which one firefighter exclaims “good lord,” another says “look at the shit that’s coming down from that,” and another says “whatever the fuck that was, it was fuckin’ huge.” Another says that some debris which looks like “rags” starts coming down, off-camera.
In a lengthy conversation today, Kenneth Bogdan, Ph.D of the New York State Department of Health’s Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment discussed why the agency has concluded that further testing for dioxin and furan impacts from last week’s TCI fire would be pointless.
Last night, the Columbia County Emergency Management Office released a statement that “The NYS Department of Health advises that as a result of these findings, additional testing in the surrounding community will not be necessary.” Since such testing had been promised by officials on both Thursday and Friday, the announcement came as more than a surprise. To many it felt as if the State were rushing to judgement, or at least denying residents the peace of mind they might achieve through more thorough testing.
Regarding several dozen pages of PCB testing data released to the public on Monday afternoon, Bogdan was asked whether the State has produced a summary or other analysis of that data which might allow citizens to better understand that highly-technical data. “We’re still working on that,” Bogdan said, saying that they hoped to complete such a summary “in the next couple of days.”
Bogdan indicated that the State deemed the size and nature of what TCI had stored onsite several magnitudes smaller than other well-known emergency fires. As a point of comparison, he cited the notorious 1981 Binghamton State Office building fire, considered a major environmental disaster due to the spread of high concentrations of PCBs, dioxins, furans and other pollutants dispersed via the building’s ventilation system.
Asked whether the agency had a firm idea of what was stored, by contrast, at TCI’s facility in order to arrive at such conclusions, Bogdan indicated that they believed there was only one drum of PCBs onsite, but that most of the massive fire sprung from oils on-site. Considering that company manifests stopped appearing in the DEC’s database back in March, and that any records store on-site surely went up “into the cloud” in the building, Bogdan deferred questions to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) which has not returned a call from earlier today. Bogdan also urged residents to press TCI itself for answers, stating that “they just, like, disappeared for three days.”
A request was sent earlier today to TCI seeking an interview.
The bottom line for Bogdan was that after seeing the initial PCB readings, the agency felt that any similar testing for dioxins and other pollutants would not be likely to show elevated levels, either—both because of the wide potential dispersal area and their belief that any dioxin fallout would mirror that of the PCBs.
Asked whether it was possible that the PCB levels were low precisely because they had been changed into dioxins and furans by the intense fire, Bogdan initially said that it would be “unheard of ” for “100% of the PCBs” to be completely transformed. But he acknowledged that it was possible that enough of the PCBs were altered to lower those readings while also resulting to a concomitant release of dioxins. Nevertheless, Bogdan stood by the agency’s position that further testing would be fruitless to undertake.
The agency’s phone number, if others want to discuss concerns with the DOH, is (518) 402-7800.
This site has been receiving many anecdotal reports of people downwind of last week’s TCI fire who have health concerns and questions. In any such situation, concerned residents may want to document their experience as thoroughly as possible, and consult a physician first and foremost.
However, if you have experiences or concerns you wish to convey, or would like to be put in touch with other residents with similar concerns, readers may contact this site confidentially via this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org ... Information sent to that email address will not be posted here (or otherwise shared) without your full, prior consent.
Meanwhile, TCI has announced on their website that they have established a toll-free “hotline” to their insurance company, Zurich at (866) 837-5021, for those property owners “inconvenienced or damaged in any way from the fire” to be assigned an “adjuster.”
In what reads like a reversal of previous promises, the State Department of Health has proclaimed that further testing for pollution impacts from last week’s towering inferno at TCI of NY in Ghent “will not be be necessary.”
Last Thursday, officials indicated that test results for other pollutants, such as dioxins, would be issued on Friday. Late Friday, with test data not forthcoming, the story changed: preliminary testing for PCBs was complete, but testing for dioxins would not start until Monday—after a predicted rainstorm over the weekend.
But now, the Columbia County Emergency Management Office has released a statement on Facebook which appears to say that the State may not do either dioxin testing, nor indeed look for any other pollutant, because it feels its initial PCB tests were adequate to rule out other possibilities:
“The NYS Department of Health advises that as a result of these findings, additional testing in the surrounding community will not be necessary. They explain that detectable levels of PCBs form the basis to determine the need to conduct additional tests for other potentially hazardous substances. They advise that there is no reason to believe that there is a threat to the public from any type of hazardous material resulting from the fire.”
Covering the County’s Thursday press conference, The Register-Star had written that Bill Black said “tests were still being done by the Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation for volatile organic compounds and dioxins.” Black was further quoted as saying that “Those results should come back within 24 hours.” (It now appears that such testing for dioxins hadn’t even began.)
Also on Friday, The Albany Times-Unionreported that Columbia County Sheriff's Department Lieutenant Thom Lanphear, who is also chair of “the local emergency planning committee,” said “DEC will test for dioxin on Monday.” The paper also quoted Lanphear sa saying that “state health department officials do not think the dioxin testing is necessary, but it is being done because county residents want such checks.”
Apparently what residents want may no longer be quite so important to the State Health Department. Even if officials truly believe they have done their due diligence, cancelling anticipated tests would undermine public trust in these assurances.
Highly-carcinogenic dioxins and furans are known to result from the incomplete combustion of PCBs. Experts have indicated that dioxins and furans are of even greater concern than PCBs, and that proper testing and analysis could take weeks. Knowing that PCBs can change into other substances in a fire, then saying “we found no PCBs,” seems a bit like putting two sugar cubes into a hot cup of tea, letting them dissolve, then saying it looks like there is nothing in the tea.
Meanwhile, this site has received a report of a NYS Department of Environmental Conservation representative visiting highly-impacted homes near the fire, but declining to take samples of visible residues when requested to do so by a homeowner, and is following up on that lead.