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After a big fire, questions persist

Critics fault state’s limited testing after blaze involving PCBs



Contributing writer



After a huge chemical fire erupted at an industrial plant in West Ghent on the night of Aug. 1, authorities advised everyone within a 15-mile radius of the site to stay indoors, keep windows closed and avoid using air conditioners.

The dire warnings, which covered nearly all of Columbia County, stemmed from concerns that a plume of toxic chemicals might be spreading from the blaze at TCI of New York, a company that specializes in recycling transformers containing PCBs. PCBs, when burned, can transform into even more toxic compounds, such as dioxins and a class of chemicals known as furans.

But less than 24 hours after the fire began, and even before it was fully extinguished, state and local officials lifted the advisory as well as an evacuation order for homes within a half-mile of the plant. State environmental and health officials said an initial round of tests turned up no evidence that PCBs had spread beyond the fire site at concentrations that would pose a health concern.

And after indicating at first that it would test air and soot samples for evidence of dioxin, the state announced it would not conduct these tests, saying they were unnecessary.

In the days and weeks since the TCI fire, local citizens, environmentalists and independent experts have continued to question whether the state did enough testing – and whether it did the right tests – to support its claim that the fire poses no lingering risks to human health or the environment.

David Carpenter, a professor at the University of Albany’s School of Public Health with extensive experience in PCB testing, has said flatly that he believes the state’s tests were inadequate.

The fire also exposed glaring weaknesses in Columbia County’s emergency preparedness. Volunteer firefighters lacked the resources they needed to control the blaze, and people living near the plant reported they didn’t find out about the evacuation and air-quality warnings until many hours after the fire started.

Chemical-fueled inferno
Firefighters and county emergency officials have described the TCI fire as the worst in the county’s history.

Fueled by oil and chemicals stored inside the plant, the blaze, which started about 10 p.m., burned fiercely through the night, producing a glowing fireball and a billowing plume of black smoke. More than a dozen powerful explosions rocked the plant site, forcing firefighters to retreat and let the fire rage, and witnesses reported that at one point, a bus-sized oil tank rocketed into the air before falling to earth about 200 feet away.

Firefighters needed fire-suppressing foam to battle the inferno effectively, but a foam-spraying truck didn’t arrive at the scene until after daylight on Aug. 2, borrowed from the Stratton Air National Guard Base near Schenectady.

TCI, which has been located in Ghent for most of its 30-year history, is among a small number of firms in the United States that are licensed to collect and process old transformers and other electrical equipment containing PCB-contaminated oil.

But firefighters didn’t know exactly what chemicals were inside the building when they arrived at the fire scene. County officials say TCI had filed required paperwork listing the chemicals on site, but the filing only gave a snapshot of what was in the building in a previous year.

TCI said its own records were destroyed in the fire, and the company initially played down the quantities of PCBs that were in the building.

In the days immediately after the fire, the Register-Star of Hudson quoted TCI’s plant manager and co-owner, Brian Hemlock, as saying the plant only handled materials containing less than 50 parts per million of PCBs – concentrations that are classified as nonhazardous.

But the Times Union of Albany later cited regulatory reports filed with state and federal environmental agencies that showed the TCI plant handled eight shipments in 2012 involving fluids with PCB concentrations of 50 to 500 ppm – concentrations high enough to be considered state-regulated hazardous waste.

Still later, an engineering firm’s analysis of what was in the plant, compiled from TCI’s customers’ records, revealed that the plant contained three transformers with PCBs at even higher concentrations -- of 930 ppm, 1,300 ppm and 1,600 ppm, respectively – at the time of the fire.

Also on hand at the 9,000-square-foot plant were plenty of ingredients to feed an industrial conflagration, including 125,000 gallons of flammable mineral oil in 16 holding tanks, plus propane tanks and diesel fuel. (After Congress banned the manufacture and sale of PCBs in the late 1970s, manufacturers switched to using mineral oil as a coolant in electrical transformers.)

A mobile company called Power Substation Solutions also had flammable materials stored at the site, most notably multiple drums of sodium. Sodium is used for de-chlorinating PCBs, but when it comes in contact with water, it reacts violently and produces flammable hydrogen gas, sodium hydroxide and heat.

Test questions
In the days just after the fire, the state Department of Environmental Conservation collected about 80 samples of soot, soil and water in Columbia County, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency collected a much smaller number, and both agencies analyzed the samples for PCB contamination.

Critics say both agencies used a test that’s cheaper and faster than a more sensitive measure that would have been more likely to find PCB residues after a fire.

The state undertook several rounds of sampling, in concentric circles at increasing distances from the site.

With some results in hand, state health officials announced that, because they had not found PCBs at any distance from the plant site, there was no need to look for dioxins. They also stated unequivocally that the fire had posed no threat to public health and that there was little evidence to suggest people in the area would have been exposed to PCBs, dioxins or furans.

“At this time there is no reason to believe there is a threat to the public from any type of hazardous materials as a result of the fire,” state Deputy Health Commissioner Guthrie Birkhead said in a press release issued Aug. 3.

But Carpenter, the University at Albany professor, said in an interview that he believes the state’s testing was insufficient to support such a blanket statement.

Carpenter said he would have preferred that the state used the more expensive tests that are designed to find individual PCB compounds. Instead, he said, the state tested for commercial mixtures of specific PCB compounds. The tests only confirm the presence of these specific mixtures, he explained.

One problem, he added, is that individual PCB compounds would behave differently in a fire; some would tend to vaporize, while others might bind with soot, resulting in the need for more sensitive tests.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has defended its approach, which involved testing wipe samples collected at publicly accessible sites at various distances from the fire scene.

Carpenter said he doesn't fault the environmental agencies for using the cheaper, faster test initially.

“My big complaint is that they stopped there,” he said. “And the fact that they didn't do any testing for dioxins and furans is inexcusable.”

Carpenter has run a sophisticated PCB laboratory, capable of measuring the compounds in all kinds of media, ever since he launched an interdisciplinary research project on PCBs in the 1980s. Earlier in his career, he was director of New York’s Wadsworth Lab, the third-largest public health laboratory in the United States. He was also the founding dean of the University at Albany’s School of Public Health.

Dioxin debate
The state’s stance on dioxin testing appeared to evolve in the days immediately after the fire.

On Aug. 2, the day the fire was put out, county officials said dioxin test results would be ready the next day. On Aug. 3, a Friday, officials said dioxin testing would begin on Monday. A big rainstorm was predicted for Sunday. On Monday, Aug. 6, the state announced it would skip dioxin testing altogether.

The state’s PCB tests cost about $140 each. By comparison, individual dioxin tests would cost 10 times more. But the DEC’s resistance to more elaborate testing can’t be attributed to government budget constraints, as the agency had its contractor bill TCI directly for the post-fire tests.

Although New York shunned dioxin testing, the Times Union reported that state officials in Massachusetts collected samples in Berkshire County after the TCI fire and tested them for both PCBs and dioxin. Those samples, from areas more than 15 miles from the fire scene, turned up nothing unusual, EPA officials told the paper.

On the morning after the fire, some people who live near the TCI plant awoke to find oily soot and debris floating in their pools or ponds, littering their yards and gardens, and fouling their houses and vehicles. State officials surprised them by refusing to collect samples from individual private properties for toxic testing.

Carpenter called the state’s decision not to test these soot samples “ridiculous.”

“It’s as though they haven’t learned anything from other incidents, from Love Canal to 9/11,” Carpenter said. “Not testing soot is absolutely inexcusable.”

Sam Pratt, a journalist-turned-activist who led a successful campaign a decade ago to block construction of a major new cement plant in Greenport, has been piecing together information about the TCI fire on his blog. His posts over the past month included a 15-minute video by Mitchell Gaynor, an oncologist with a home in Columbia County, who explained that in an uncontrolled fire, even low concentrations of PCBs can be transformed into dioxins and furans, which are vaporized and dispersed.

Safe enough to eat?
Public anger over the testing issue and emergency notification problems boiled over at times at a public forum that drew more than 300 people to the West Ghent firehouse on Aug. 16. The forum, organized by Assemblywoman Didi Barrett, D-Washington, was intended to give citizens a chance to ask questions of the company and various government officials. Hemlock, the TCI co-owner, had been expected to attend but canceled at the last minute, saying there’d been a death in his family, Barrett told the crowd. No one else from TCI took his place.

Local officials at the forum seemed to share the public’s frustration about the failure to spread the word about the emergency more promptly. Later in August, the county Board of Supervisors chose a vendor to operate a “reverse 911” service through which residents could be notified of crisis situations. Similar systems were already in place in neighboring Rensselaer and Berkshire counties, which both activated their systems to notify residents nearest to the TCI fire.

The Aug. 16 forum also underscored problems the TCI fire has caused for local farmers. Some of those attending the forum said they had stopped eating food from their gardens and were avoiding buying local produce because of fears of contamination.

In a press release issued Aug. 3, the state Department of Health advised gardeners who live near the fire site that if soot or ash were visible on the soil, in most cases ample watering or rain would be sufficient to reduce its presence on the soil surface. If there was a thick, visible layer of soot or ash, the agency suggested, people might consider removing and discarding a layer of soil and then tilling the soil or adding clean soil.

Robin Andrews, the Claverack town supervisor, said a farmer in her town reported being told by state health officials that if he hadn’t seen or smelled smoke and he didn’t see ash or soot, it would be fine to harvest his market produce. The farmer questioned this, noting that after a flood last year he’d been directed to destroy affected produce because of concerns about contamination.

Still, Andrews, who was the only member of the Board of Supervisors to attend the forum, pointed out that all of the PCB tests undertaken by the state so far had come back negative.

“Honestly, it is not my impression that more testing is needed,” she said.

Andrews, a Democrat who is running for state Senate, acknowledged she doesn’t have the expertise to know whether state officials are correct about their conclusions about the safety of the environment near the TCI fire.

“The reality is I'd like to believe that everything's fine,” Andrews said. “Because I’m not a scientist, they can run mumbo jumbo around me.”

Ed Simonsen of Kinderhook said he doesn’t believe the tests done by the state and EPA can give an accurate picture of what became of the PCBs in the fire. The retired high school science teacher previously worked for more than 15 years as an analytic chemist at a large chemical manufacturer. Today he is chairman of the Columbia County Environmental Management Council, an appointed advisory body.

‘Not reassured’
Courtney Powell, who lives a quarter-mile from TCI, said she’s worried about the future well being of her three small children.

“Do I think it's safe?” she asked rhetorically. “No, I haven't been reassured.”

But Powell said her family had to resume a normal life after days of not allowing her kids to go outside to play.

“It’s not like we can get up and move,” she said

Powell described herself as “a middle-class mom who has no knowledge of this.” But she’s also a nursing student whose recent microbiology course drove home the principle that “proper data is everything.” When she considers the testing done by the state, Powell said she doesn't think that essential standard is being followed.

As a fallback measure, she collected her own samples after the fire, but she hasn’t yet figured out how to get them analyzed.

Carpenter said he sympathizes with her quest for data, but he stressed that there is no effective alternative to government testing in a situation such as this. Because effective tests are so expensive and require sampling across a wide area, environmental testing is not something individuals can do on their own, Carpenter said.

Similarly, Stephen Lester, a staff toxicologist for nearly 30 years at the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice, said environmental testing isn’t a job for amateurs.

“The thing about testing is, if you use poor sampling procedures and the wrong tests, you will never find anything,” Lester said.

Government agencies, he added, can use environmental testing in cases like the TCI fire as a way of controlling messaging.

Told of the state’s unwillingness to test homeowners’ property, even when soot was present, Lester said, “That doesn't even pass the laugh test.”

Contacted Aug. 26 upon his return from a vacation of several weeks, Ghent Supervisor Larry Andrews said he had to do his own research before he could comment on the adequacy of the tests done at TCI.

Two days later, Carpenter mentioned that Andrews had called him to set up an appointment to discuss the TCI fire.




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