hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




TCI’s history includes past fires, worker death



Contributing writer



The Aug. 1 fire that destroyed the TCI of New York plant in West Ghent was not the company’s first, nor was the smaller fire earlier this year in which a trailer of oily rags at the plant ignited.

In the mid-1980s, fire broke out at TCI’s first PCB processing plant, an old mill at Renwick and South Colden streets in the distressed Hudson River city of Newburgh, the city’s fire chief, Michael Vatter, recalled.

A fire prevention specialist on the Newburgh force, Lt. William Wiseman, said the fire occurred in 1984 or early the next year. He said runoff and firefighting gear were tested for contamination, but he could offer no details without manually going through the department's old, noncomputerized journals.

TCI, originally known as Trans-Cycle Industries Inc., got its start in 1982, three years after Congress banned the manufacture and sale of polychlorinated biphenyls. David I. Laskin founded the company to handle discarded electrical equipment containing PCBs. He set up shop in Newburgh.

But after the fire, TCI left Newburgh in search of greener pastures.

Records in Greene County show that on May 29, 1985, Laskin bought 60 acres of vacant land in the rural river town of Athens.

An employee at the town office recalled that Athens was working on its zoning ordinance around that time. She said the town supervisor at the time, Herbert Scott, now deceased, did not want TCI to locate anywhere in Athens, but he was not the only voice warning against TCI.

In the Ghent town attorney's files on TCI, local environmental watchdog Sam Pratt discovered a letter penned jointly by leaders of the Athens village and town fire companies and laying out their objections to TCI locating there.

The Athens fire officials were concerned about their capacity to fight a fire at TCI’s prospective plant and pointed out that “a fire in this industry has implications for the public health.”

In the end, Laskin’s property in Athens was zoned rural agricultural, making it unsuitable for an industrial facility.

So TCI moved to Ghent, despite the fact that that town’s zoning ordinance already had a specific prohibition against toxic waste and toxic chemicals being present.

After examining original documents, Pratt posted a discussion on his blog, SamPratt.com, about what he described as the company’s lack of full disclosure in the process of getting necessary local approvals for its Ghent facility.

In September 1986, TCI applied for a building permit at its current site without making any mention of PCBs. The application’s mention of handling “electronic transmission and distribution equipment,” however, was enough to prompt the town’s Planning Board chairman at the time, John Winkler, to fire back with a series of questions about waste products, disposal and PCBs.

Laskin replied with an assurance that “we will not accept any material that has been manufactured as polychlorinated biphenyl PCB equipment.”

That is, TCI would not take in the older, pre-1979 electrical transformers that relied on PCBs as their coolant -- only non-PCB transformers that employ mineral oil for that purpose (and often contain significant levels of PCB contamination).

“Any oil-filled electrical equipment we will handle will be tested and drained prior to being received at our operation,” Laskin wrote. “The testing is to insure that there is no more than trace amounts (0.05% max) may have entered this equipment through servicing or repair through the years.”

This maximum PCB concentration, which Laskin said his company would accept, translates to 500 parts per million. That's also the level at which EPA classifies PCB-contaminated materials as hazardous waste. It’s also 20 times higher than the federal cleanup standard for industrial sites and 500 times greater than the federal standard for residential properties.

TCI opened its West Ghent facility, a steel building just off Route 9H, in 1987. The next year, it applied to set up an incinerator for PCB-contaminated materials on its property. The state Department of Environmental Conservation granted the company a permit to do a series of test burns.

Kathleen Christiano served on the Ghent Zoning Board of Appeals when TCI requested a variance for a smokestack taller than what the town’s zoning allowed.

Christiano recalled that a warning from former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone, who advised the board that the proposed incinerator would create dangerous chemicals known as furans, was a major factor in the zoning board’s decision to reject the company’s variance request. She said TCI challenged that decision in court but lost.

Blocked from incineration in Ghent, TCI opened a PCB processing and disposal plant in Pell City, Ala., in 1990. And in 1998, TCI established a third branch in Canada, in the depressed mining town of Kirkland Lake, Ontario.

At the Kirkland Lake site, TCI promised to create 68 jobs and received an inducement package of $1.75 million, the lion's share from the taxpayer-financed Canada Jobs Fund. Laskin obtained a license for the firm to collect PCB-contaminated metals from anywhere in Canada.

Unbeknownst to the Canadians, TCI had won a major U.S. government contract to handle 130,000 tons of such waste from U.S. military bases in Japan, with the possibility of additional PCB waste from military bases elsewhere in Asia. The Kirkland Lake plant seemed a promising destination for this waste, as the United States prohibited entry of this waste across its own borders.

Within a year of setting up operations in Kirkland Lake, however, TCI was threatening layoffs unless the provincial Ministry of Environment granted a “minor amendment” allowing the company to import the waste. Opponents of the idea spoke up, and the Ontario environment minister surprised everyone by denying TCI’s request.

Another historical record uncovered by Pratt details the death of an employee, Lawrence “Roger” Smith, at TCI’s Ghent plant in 1989. Records from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration show Smith, 21, died of asphyxiation, poisoned by the fumes of a potent solvent, trichlorotrifluoroethane, which he was using to clean a 10-foot-high vat. The seal on his protective gear was broken.

Laskin, the company president, objected to OSHA’s proposed fine of $3,300 for workplace safety violations and got the fine reduced by one-third.

In July 2001, Laskin was seriously injured when the TCI-owned Piper plane he was piloting crashed. Five or six years ago, two owners of G & S Technologies of Kearny, N.J., and Brian Hemlock, who since the Aug. 1 fire has been identified variously as vice president, president and plant manager in Ghent, purchased all the assets of TCI Inc. of New York.

Currently the firm operates as a limited liability corporation. The former sister plant in Alabama has been under separate ownership for about five years.

Hemlock has indicated the company wants to rebuild the Ghent plant, this time with an internal fire suppression system. The old building only had a fire alarm and fire extinguishers.




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