What was stored at TCI, the PCB waste handler whose building went up in flames earlier this month? And what was the company supposed to be storing?
An engineering report was released recently by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), disclosing what TCI has pieced together so far about materials present in its Ghent facility at the time of its massive August 1st inferno.
That inventory appears to run up against other public statements by the company and official sources, and against the past expections of the Town of Ghent. Such conflicting information in turn points to key questions about about what TCI was permitted to store onsite in the first place. In several cases, it appears that the company obtained materials handling and transport permits from State or Federal agencies, without updating the Town or local firefighting companies about new activities.
To come to grips with these seeming contradictions requires a brief trip back in time, as well as a review of more recent information which has come to light. (Regular readers will have to bear with any repetitions below.) These questions may prove central to the question of whether TCI will be able to rebuild, and how residents can be protected from similar disasters in the future, whether involving this company or others like it.
This site has previously noted the discovery of documents sent by Town of Ghent attorney Ted Guterman to the Town’s Planning Board chairman on behalf of the Town Board in 1989. Guterman attached to his cover letter what he called “a Position Statement that the Town of Ghent has issued in connection with to [sic] TCI, Inc.”
This letter came several years after TCI received a building permit, and was in response to a proposed incinerator the company sought to add to its Falls Industrial Road site. That incinerator never came to be. But the Town’s Position Statement contained many eye-opening statements about the genesis of the facility—statements which are especially relevant today, since the company has had two fires in eight months, and says it intends to rebuild.
Among many other things, the Town’s two-page letter stated that:
• “The Town of Ghent has always been and continues to be concerned wth any possible environmental impact evolving out of the operations of TCI, Inc.”
• “When TCI initially applied for a use permit in 1986... [i]t was specifically indicated that the process would not include nor would TCI accept any material that has been manufactured as PCB equipment.”
• “It was further indicated that any oil filled electrical equipment would be tested and drained prior to be received at the premises in order to insure that there were no PCBs.”
• “The Town is further concerned that the process, if approved by ENCON, will not result in any toxic waste generated or disposed of on the property or through the air, including PCBs.”
• “[T]he Town of Ghent Zoning Ordinance contains a provision specifically prohibiting storage collection, retention or utilization of toxic waste products or by-products or other similar toxic chemicals in any district within the Town of Ghent.”
Got that? No PCB equipment, no PCBs, no disposal of PCBs or other waste through the air and no storage of toxic waste products or by-products or other similar toxic chemicals in any district. Information which slowly has come to light in the aftermath of the TCI suggest that at least some of the activities the Town had deemed unwelcome were in fact occurring at the facility.
Again, all of the direct quotes above come from Ghent Town Board’s own 1989 statement, as conveyed by its lawyer. And as we’ve seen previously, those sentiments were echoed at the time in a Times-Union article which quoted attorney Jason Shaw, who was then representing the nearby Gallagher Stud farm, as stating:
“TCI was not forthcoming about the presence of PCBs when it applied three years ago to open its operation. I don’t think TCI was up-front about the fact that there would be toxic substances at the facility... They did not clarify the definition they used in an attempt to muddy the issue.”
The T-U also wrote at the time that “Town attorney Theodore Guterman said he remembers [TCI chief David] Laskin telling the Planning Board there would be no PCBs on the property.”
Now, compare this 1980s background concerning what was planned to be stored on the TCI site with the inventory reported in a memoradum by Hudson-based engineering firm Crawford & Associates Engineers, and posted recently on the DEC’s website.
In the Crawford memorandum, the firm’s vice president Brandee Nelso states that though TCI’s records were destroyed in its massive August 1st fire, the company has been attempting to reconstruct its storage from discussions with clients. Nelson states that “according to the eecords TCI has obtained, quantities of regulated and non-regulated materials at TCI are estimated as follows:”
• 750,000 to 1,000,000 pounds of non-regulated materials consisting primarily of electrical equipment
• Non-regulated mineral oil – approximately 125,000 gallons Diesel fuel – approximately 500 gallons
• (3) 6,800 pound transformers, each with an estimated 255 gallons of dielectric fluid (mineral oil) with PCB concentrations of 930 ppm, 1,300 ppm and 1,600 ppm, respectively.
• 9 drums of PCB Debris, which it typically soil or absorbent materials, with a total weight of approximately 1,779 kilograms
• 6 bushings, each with 15 gallons of 50-499 ppm PCB, having a total weight of 1,304 kilograms
• 2 Oil & Water Drums, used for floor washdown and assumed to have PCBs, totaling 100 gallons and having a weight of approximately 462 kilograms.
In a telephone interview on August 7th, this site asked Kenneth Bogdan, Ph.D of the State Department of Health’s Bureau of Toxic Substance Assessment whether his State agency had any firm idea of what was stored at TCI. Bogdan indicated that while it was unclear at the time, he believed there was only one drum of PCBs onsite—a statement that mirrored other official reassurances on the Thursday afternoon the fire.had reported on August 10th that company co-owner Brian Hemlock and former controller Fran Vecellio “have said there were likely to be very few PCBs in the building at the time of the fire.” Hemlock was further quoted as saying that:
“Only equipment testing less than 50 ppm are accepted and processed at TCI of NY, LLC.”
Yet the Crawford inventory shows that TCI now believes it had not one but eleven drums onsite which contained an unspecified concentration of PCBs, and 90 gallons of bushings containing PCBs in the hazardous 50-499 ppm (parts per million) concentration, plus three transformers containing 765 gallons of fluid with a whopping 930-1,600 ppm of PCBs.
Indeed, a DEC “investigation has determined that three transformers located inside the facility at the time of the fire contained levels of PCBs between 1,000 and 2,000 ppm,” far in excess of both the company’s original stated intent, and more recent statements.
Oddly, the Crawford inventory of storage at TCI does not mention sodium. Sodium is known to cause violent explosions when it comes in contact with water and other substance, and has been repeatedly cited as a principal firefighting concern on the night of the inferno. Sodium would be a likely cause of the 10-15 fireballs witnessed by first responders and neighbors on the night of the catastrophe.
As WAMC’s Dave Lucas reported on August 14th:
“[T]he building housed mineral oil tanks, tractor trailers containing fuel oil, propane tanks, and other hazardous substances, including sodium that came from transformers disposed of at TCI.”
A consent order just signed with DEC (which allows TCI and KMOJ to move stormwater into the nearby Widow’s Creek) indicates a number of permits the State has on file for the company that may not have been known to local officials. DEC notes for example, permitting for the site as a “registered petroleum bulk storage facility” and as a hauler of “non-hazardous industrial/commercial, hazardous industrial/commercial, and waste oil.”
Mason has also reported that the West Ghent fire company had been unaware that a TCI subcontractor, Power Substation Services incorporated in Florida,“had brought sodium on the site for use in recycling transformer oil.” Mason quoted West Ghent chief James Cesternino as saying “The fire company never received any haz-mat inventories from PSS nor was the sodium ever mentioned to us at our last building tour.”
According to The Columbia Paper, PSS “stored materials within the building” as follows:
- 16 - 55-gallon drums of sodium metal
- 3 cylinders of gas/liquid mix of sodium and oil
- 2 - 150 gallon diesel tanks
- Several nitrogen tanks
Fatalities among firefighters were narrowly averted only because at the last minute, a TCI employee saw first responders “setting up the hose lines and informed [them] that there was sodium in the building and it reacts violently with water. It becomes explosive and produces hydrogen gas.” As firefighter Nathan Chess has written:
“It is only based on sheer luck that a serious loss of life was avoided. It was only based on basic ‘off the cuff’ comment by the company’s ‘keyholder’ that the responding units were advised that there was a substantial amount of solid sodium stored in the plant. This chemical is used as part of alternative treatment of low level PCB (< than 50ppm). But when exposed it creates an exothermic reaction and produces hydrogen gas...”
Dr. Mitchell L. Gaynor, who previously discussed his concerns about the TCI fire based on his extensive expertise in environmental carcinogenesis, has also noted that the material safety guidelines from companies like Sargent Welch recommend that sodium metal be stored in “red storage... away from any strong oxidizers,” for example in a “dedicated flammables cabinet,” in a “cool, dry, well ventilated, locked storeroom away from incompatible materials,” as well as keeping it immersed in mineral oil.
Gaynor then asks:
“Why would TCI and PSS store a mix of highly explosive chemicals in close proximity in their warehouse, which also contained highly toxic PCBs, which when incinerated at high heat create the most potent carcinogens known to man?
“Chemical storage guidelines from the CDC state that nitrogen and sodium metal are incompatible chemicals and should not be stored nor used near each other as they might cause explosive reactions if mixed. What industrial purpose would be served by storing 16 55-gallon drums of sodium metal near nitrogen tanks, diesel and oil, as was done at the PSS/TCI facility the night of August 1, 2012?
“Given the highly flammable and explosive nature of these chemicals, was West Ghent apprised of this, and what contingency and evacuation plans were in place for the town and surrounding counties?”
All of this again raises questions not just about what TCI (and PSS) had stored on the night of August 1st, but what it had been permitted to store locally, what it had been reporting to various local, County, State and Federal oversight agencies, and what its commitment has been to keeping these materials stored safely.
Taken in both its historical and its recent context, the Crawford inventory of TCI’s storage thus points to at least three central issues for further investigation:
- Given the Town’s stated expectations in 1986-1989 that “no PCBs”—or at best that only very low concentrations of PCBs—would be present at TCI, how does this square with the current inventory?
- How does this inventory (and the apparent presence of other substances such as sodium) square with the Town’s 1989 reference to zoning prohibitions against storage of certain types of materials “in any district” of Ghent?
- What was stipulated, if anything, in any use permit issued to TCI when it was first built, and was that local permit ever modified or enforced?
Reviews thus far in local records leave vast gaps in even rudimentary permitting information for TCI’s operation.
It is not even clear at this point whether any formal application was submitted in 1986, beyond the company’s brief letter of introduction; or whether any special use or other ordinary permit was issued along with TCI’s building permit; or whether any SEQR (State Environmental Quality Review) process was performed for the facility; or whether any local permit modifications were ever requested, apart from the failed attempt to build an incinerator, for all the other materials brought onsite.
Until such documents come to light—and they may never materialize, much like the company’s untraceable PCBs—concerned observers are left to wonder whether there were major omissions in the process, major misunderstandings, or outright violations that are going uninvestigated.
As has been said before: If any ordinary Columbia County resident took all the cans of paint, turpentine, gasoline, bleach or even ordinary garbage from his or her garage or basement, and burned it in a barrel in the backyards, that ordinary resident almost surely would wind up in trouble.
Likewise, if any of ordinary resident had two big fires in the same year at his or her home, neighbors understandably might begin to wonder about how committed that person was to basic safety.
And if, as a result of a community fighting and cleaning up from fires, that ordinary resident was discovered to be to storing unexpectedly large quantities of unusual equipment and fuel—let alone PCB wastes—someone surely would ask to see that person’s papers.
Yet to date, no public mention has been made of any potential fines or enforcement actions against TCI by local, County, State or Federal agencies. And there is little paper trail to explain how these activities and storage came to be accepted in the context of the Town of Ghent’s zoning code.
If there are good answers, it’s incumbent upon elected and appointed officials, as well as the company—which still has not responded after several weeks to this site’s request for an interview—to take the lead in providing them.