An official report on the catastrophic fire last summer TCI in Ghent reveals that despite an estimated $23,000,000 in damages, the PCB processor did not have smoke alarms, sprinklers or standpipes installed in the building.
The $23 million estimated loss is doubly surprising given that the property was only assessed at less than 2.5% of that amount. According to Ghent’s final 2012 assessment roll, TCI’s assessment was just $564,259, resulting in less than $5,000 in Town and County property taxes.
The report’s existence only came to light due to a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request and subsequent article by John Mason for The Register-Star on January 26th.
Chief investigator Randi Shadic of the NYS Office of Fire Prevention and Control forwarded the results to the County Fire Coordinator, West Ghent Fire Chief, and State Police Investigator in charge, but requested that they “not release the report or related documents unless it’s pursuant to a subpoena or Freedom of Information Law request.”
Among other things, the report reveals that:
- During the fire, a 20,000 tank of mineral oil “suffered a catastrophic failure which caused the entire tank to become airborne, exit the structure through the roof and land a great distance to the north and east of the structure.”
- The structure at 39 Falls Industrial Road “is owned by KMOJ Acquisitions LLC of Kearney, New Jersey and is doing business as TCI of NY LLC.” Note: The 2012 Ghent tax rolls show the property as owned by TCI Realty of NY, LLC.
- Yet another company, Power Substation Services (PSS) of West Virginia, “had been operating at the TCI facility for approximately two years.” Note: Extensive records obtained via FOIL by this site from Ghent give no indication that TCI ever notified the Town of the presence there of PSS or KMOJ.
- The report says that “PSS is a business that processes transformer oils containing polychlorinate biphenyl (PCB's) at a level higher than that which TCI is allowed to handle.”
- Investigators were not able to make their first entry into the structure until September 6th, almost five weeks after the fire. Some materials had already been removed from the site by that time. Concerned about “the possibility of chemical contamination” in the building, they had to wear Level C hazardous materials suits, respirators and other safety gear to do so.
- The fire was discovered by a TCI employee who responded to a “motion alarm activation inside the building.” His first call was to a manager, who called the alarm company, who called Columbia County 911. Note: If you ever discover a fire, it’s probably a good idea to call 911 first.
- TCI had a burglar alarm system in place, which went off at 9:55 but was assumed by the alarm company to have been triggered by a bird or other animal. It went off again four minutes later at 9:59—at which point the company rep evidently went to see what was happening. The report attributes this motion detection to “the movement of smoke or possibly flames,” not a person. Note: State application materials submitted but apparently withdrawn by TCI earlier in the year appear to indicate that the building was also under video surveillance, but no mention of such records is made in this report.
- Firefighters entered the smoke-filled building through the front entrance and also by forced entry through the rear door, eventually spotting flames. Note: It is not indicated what masks or other breathing apparatus or chemical exposure protection were used, if any.
- PSS was handling PCBs in “two mobile processing units,” a “process rig” and a “dehydration rig,” with “numerous 55 gallon steel drums stored under and immediately next to the processing trailers.”
- “The combustible portions of the trailers were nearly 100% consumed by fire,” with the steel drums also sustaining “extensive fire and heat damage.” Some collapsed, and others had “holes burned through the sides.”
- The steel beams, trusses and metal roof panels of the building likewise collapsed, testament to the extreme heat of the fire.
- The fire was not believed to have been “at floor level” initially.
- The report favors the hypothesis that the fire orginated “in the south/west portion of the warehouse area of the structure near the processing trailer units.” It discounts or rules out numerous other causes, from electrial wiring problems to a lightning strike.
- Repairs were made to PSS’s processing trailer on the day of the fire, specifically replacing a heater used to melt the sodium used by PSS to break down PCBs. A higher wattage heater (7,500 instead of 6,000 watts) was installed.
- This heater “was left on” overnight on purpose “to resume processing of oil” the next morning.
- The report states that the PSS employees reported the “operating temperature of this heater and mixer chest is 250 degrees,” while also noting that “the ignition temperature” of sodium is 239 degrees ... and 250 degrees. That suggests the sodium could have been ignited by the heater, as acknowledged in the report.
- Another possible cause cited is “the possibility of a chemical reaction or spontaneous heating of materials combined in [a] trash drum” used to dispose of oil-soaked rags and other materials alongside the trailer.
Endnotes: Ghent resident Patti Matheney spoke with a representative of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, who expressed surprise that PSS was handling PCBs of a concentration indicated in the report, and who requested to see a copy of it.
Neither the Feds, State, County or Town of Ghent are known to have imposed any fines or cited the facility for any permit, fire or other code violations related to the disaster last summer. The Town has, however, indicated that the West Ghent fire company will need to increase its budget by 10% as a result of costs incurred for fighting the fire.