Multiple news outlets are reporting that a 7,000-gallon oil spill occurred early Friday morning at First Fuel & Propane, located on Route 9H in the Town of Ghent.
“We saw flames coming off of the wires,” said Hudson resident Zia Anger, describing this afternoon’s fire in the alley east of South 5th Street, between Warren and Union. The conflagration knocked out cable and internet to many Mid-Hudson subscribers, and to Verizon phone and internet clients in the southeastern reaches of the City.
According to another witness, the blaze began in a narrow gap between two garages on the south side of the alley, at least one of which appeared to be completely gutted. He told the officers investigating: “I bet some guy took his last puff of a cigarette and flicked it right between them.”
Some of the biggest ups and downs of the year include:
Foraging for ingredients turns out to have its limitations. Before long, Pelaccio suggests we give up the mushroom hunt. Emde reluctantly agrees. “I mean, I can smell mushrooms though,” she says, then tells me about recently sniffing her way to ramps. “Zak calls me a hound dog.” She gives an animalistic howl. “It’s weird, that’s the sound I make when we’re having sex.”
“It boosts my self-esteem,” says Pelaccio.
“Like you need it,” she returns.
“We always need it,” Pelaccio says.
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This weekend’s mini-blizzard dumped 8-10 inches of frozen water particles on Hudson. It was a lot, but hardly unprecedented. For example, the City got more than that in early February of this year.
But this time around, residents and business owners in Hudson sound ready to march on City Hall with torches and snow shovels. Complaints are rife that the City waited too long to begin the removal process, issued confusing parking rules, neglected to post signage, and avidly ticketed holiday shoppers on Warren Street at $35 a pop.
Mayor Bill Hallenbeck and Council President Don Moore countered that they had been generous in not towing cars, as they could have. They also deflected blame onto arcane City regulations which supposedly tied their hands. (Someone—presumably City Attorney Cheryl Roberts—fed Snow Miser Hallenbeck the flimsy excuse that liability somehow prevented the City from posting helpful signage in advance of the actual removal. As if anyone would sue the City for communicating.) Evidently it came as a surprise that Winter might follow Fall, and that snow could drop in December.
Meanwhile, recently-defeated Mayoral candidate Victor Mendolia left off licking his electoral wounds to join the chorus of criticism, following the lead of Council members John Friedman and David Marston, who reported fielding 10 zillion complaints from constituents. Looking at the Hudson Community Board on Facebook, that probably wasn’t an exaggeration.
The problem for politicos on both sides is that the laws and procedures in question have been on the books for ages. Both apologists like Moore and critics like Mendolia were in positions of power over multiple winters and storms; this is not Hudson’s first Winter rodeo. Yet neither side took any action in prior years to address any legislative SNAFUs. Still, everyone is now all over it like white on ice.
This update in the New York Daily News about the fatal Metro-North derailment near Spuyten Duyvil reveals in passing a local angle on the story. Turns out the engineer of the train, William Rockefeller, is a Columbia County resident:
There was no sign of Rockefeller at his home in Germantown, N.Y. Neighbors described the engineer as a good-natured “motorhead” who was always tinkering with his white Corvette or riding motorcycles with his wife.
“Very nice people, always straight-up, nothing shady about them,” 64-year-old Russell Barth said of his neighbors. “I never saw him out of sorts.”
Rockefeller “doesn't seem like a reckless guy,” Barth added. “No loud parties, no nothing. Just a nice person.”
The train was traveling at a reported 82 mph as it entered the treacherous curve. The speed limit in the stretch leading up to the curve is 70 mph, and 30 mph around it. Rockefeller has been quoted as saying that the brakes failed.
Rockefeller is a fairly old and common name in the Germantown/Livingston area, including some of “those” Rockefellers.
UPDATE: A New York Times piece sheds some light on the early investigation into the cause of the accident, which includes the possibility that the driver dozed off.
According to a Ghent resident dining at Kozel’s, a number of his fellow patrons dashed off from their suppers to respond to a fire at Love Apple Farm, just a mile or so north of the restaurant on Route 9H. Love Apple was reportedly sold by the Loken family in the past year to Francis Greenburger, the Time Equities magnate and founder of Art Omi.
As previously reported here in 2012, the Route 9H corridor north of the intersection with 66 has been the locus of an unusual number of fires in recent years. These have included the structure fires at Meadowgreens, the razing of Amanda’s Fireplace, and of course the two fires at TCI of NY (the second one truly catastrophic). A follow-up report in 2013 noted several other fires in the vicinity, not far from 9H.
Besides the obvious question of why so many fires are clustered in this neighborhood, the next question is why nearly all of the structures were total losses. Most fires in our area do not result in complete devastation of the home or building, but these fires are hugely destructive.
Is TCI attorney Bill Better ignorant of basic zoning law and environmental precepts? Or is he just counting on his audience to be clueless?
It’s hard to tell, here on the one-year anniversary of the company’s devastating fire and explosions in Ghent... at least, based on Better’s carping and tendentious letter this week to the Columbia County Emergency Management Council, or EMC.
This site obtained a full copy of Better’s letter on Wednesday; it can be downloaded in full via this link.
As first reported here, the EMC issued a memorandum in late June recommending new steps be taken to prevent further disasters like the one at TCI at the start of last August. The day-long fire forced thousands of County residents indoors, and put countless firefighters at risk.
In response to a well-founded critique that the company failed to seek required permits, TCI’s legal flack blusters that “the Town requires no such approvals and there is no office or official prepared to issue them... No Town or County codes exist with respect to PCBs.”
Unfortunately, Better’s argument just doesn’t pass the legal laugh test. And to understand why does not require a law degree.
There are two basic types of local zoning codes in New York: Restrictive or Permissive. Restrictive zoning only allows those activities which are specifically identified as permitted uses. Any other uses not specifically spelled out in the code are not allowed. Permissive zoning is the reverse: Any uses not specifically prohibited are allowed.
Almost all towns in our region—including Ghent—opt for restrictive zoning, for a one very obvious reason: Because it’s impossible to anticipate every single cockamamie idea that some human or corporation might propose.
Thus when Better fails to find anything in the Ghent code mentioning the dechlorination of PCBs, that absence ought to have told him that it is unpermitted. Instead, TCI’s attorney plays (or acts) dumb, as if not understanding the fundamental premise of restrictive zoning.
The only way for such an unusual use to be allowed as-of-right within a restrictive zoning code would be to argue that it’s a “customary accessory use” to some other permitted activity. For example, you can have a swingset in your backyard even if your local code does not mention swingsets, because everyone agrees swingsets are customarily found on residential properties.
But no reasonable person would say that bringing in an outside contractor to heat PCBs in a trailer and dose them with explosive sodium is customary to a commercial or manufacturing business in Ghent. In any case, even Better does not even try to advance such an absurd argument. (NOTE: It also has been argued in Ghent that the mere act of bringing in a second company to the TCI building in itself should have triggered a permitting request.)
Next, Better struggles to argue that TCI’s catastrophic explosions, which leveled their facility to the ground, were “nothing more than a fire.” As such, he feels the EMC was “wrong to describe the fire as an ‘environmental incident’.”
What this lawyer characterizes as a mere “fire” prompted County emergency management officials to tell all residents within a 15-mile radius to stay indoors all day, and required a response from virtually every fire company within that same radius.
More to the point: Does Better really believe that it’s environmentally safe and legal to dispose of PCBs in a gigantic, uncontrolled bonfire punctuated by multiple explosions?
If that were the case, TCI would be in a different business: burning PCBs in huge ad hoc bonfires. After all, why bother trying to dechlorinate PCBs, or to dilute them in mineral oil, if it were environmentally safe to just torch them? There is no question that TCI’s facility contained large quantities of PCBs; the estimated amounts onsite at the time of the fire are spelled out in the company’s own engineering report.
In an attempt to minimize his client’s negligent management , Better falls back on a favorite weasel word of apologists for polluters: “measurable.” His letter argues that no “measurable contamination” was found in the surrounding air, soil or water. Once again, neither the facts nor common sense are on Better’s side. In point of fact, even the limited testing by EPA and DEC did find “measurable traces” of PCBs near the former plant site, including at least one hotspot.
And of course, if PCBs have disappeared in a fire, it’s likely they were dispersed widely, or volatilized into something else. But notoriously, those agencies did not take the promised step of reassuring the public by testing for dioxins and furans, into which PCBs often transform when incinerated.
The shameless sophistry of Better’s “environmental” argument is also on display in the statement that “less than 5% of the material on site the night of the fire involved PCBs.”
Once again, TCI’s lawyer seems to expect his readers to be unfamiliar with the rudiments of chemistry and combustion. With a highly-toxic substances, 5% is a very large amount. Saying that “only” 5% of the material burned involved PCBs is like a bartender reassuring a customer that only 5% of his martini contains arsenic.
Meanwhile, Better conveniently ignores that TCI’s disaster—its second fire of 2012—sent up a thick, dark plume observed for many miles around. The vast size of that plume meant that nearly all of its building materials and contents, including those PCBs, were distributed as soot or gases over a large area—making it unlikely that high concentrations would be found in any one spot. But this does not make unplanned, accidental incineration safe or legal.
Industrial polluters often try to escape responsibility by spreading their effluvia over a large area (typically, from a tall stack) making it difficult to definitively finger them for the spread of pollutants. But we know that PCBs were improperly burned in their unintended infermo. And as any Environmental Sciences 101 student knows, dilution is not a solution to pollution.
Better also works himself up into high dudgeon in protesting the supposed lack of “courtesy” extended to his clients by the EMC. It was not a secret that the EMC was studying ways to address future potential disasters, based on the TCI fire; indeed, Better showed up unannounced at a February EMC meeting to make his case, taking the added hostile step of bringing along a stenographer, as if the meeting were a court proceeding.
Better’s feigned ignorance of the EMC’s workings, and show of being offended by its lack of deference, perhaps is a reflection of how the attorney is used to being treated with kid gloves by the County. (Better is a former County attorney, who stepped down after three female employees filed sexual harassment lawsuits against him.)
The minutes of the Columbia County Economic Development Council (EDC) suggest how Better normally expects his clients to be mollycoddled. Himself a board member of the EDC, but frequently absent from its meetings, Better did show up for the February 26th, 2013 meeting—at which TCI boss Brian Hemlock made a presentation. Hemlock was personally introduced by EDC Chair David Crawford, whose engineering firm Crawford & Associates works and advocates for... TCI. Hemlock “asked the board for their support for the company by attending meetings” about the company’s plan. Of course, none of the many residents concerned with the fallout from TCI or its plans to rebuild were invited.
Better even goes so far as to downplay the extreme risk to which Columbia County firefighters were exposed a year ago on the night of August 1st-2nd, saying that “no firefighter was injured in the fire.” Leaving aside the possibility that firefighters may have been exposed to various toxic emissions at the site, the fact that TCI just barely missed an even worse disaster should not reassure anyone.
As Churchtown firefighter and 1st Lieutenant Nathan Chess wrote in a widely-circulated letter, “We were only minutes away from bagpipes and flag-draped coffins.” But apparently Better thinks that the risk posed to the County’s first responders was acceptable, because they retreated from the explosions just in the nick of time.
As one TCI neighbor commented after reading Better’s letter: “How and why does Bill Better think he is the authority on what regulations would be onerous or unnecessary for the safety of Columbia County? The gall of this guy is shocking.”
A: Devastating house fire • B: Smith Control Systems, where Feight worked • C: Blaze at Amanda’s Fireplace • D: Two fires at TCI of NY • E: Feight residence • F: Structure fire at home • G: Shed/barn fire • NOT PICTURED: Meadowgreens fire
With news breaking of a bizarre terrorism arrest with connections to Columbia County, one can’t help but to wonder: What is it with the Route 9H corridor?
In a previous report, this site referred to a four-mile stretch of 9H as “Fire Alley,” with a series of major fires in just 2.5 years.
Five fires on 9H during this period included the May 2010 blaze which leveled Amanda’s Fireplace on 9H, between Falls Road and Falls Industrial Road. That fire was deemed an arson by investigators, though no one was ever arrested. Columbia County issued a $2.5 million stimulus bond to assist Amanda’s with rebuilding.
Just a stone’s throw from Amanda’s Fireplace on Falls Industrial Road one finds TCI of NY, the PCB handler/processor whose facility was devastated by a September 2012 fire. That inferno (and the overnight sequence of explosions) caused an evacuation of neighbors, with all residents within 15 miles told to stay indoors and turn off air conditioning for the day.
As also previously reported here, two additional fires (for a total of seven) occurred just a couple miles off Fire Alley in recent years, on nearby Knitt Road along the border of Ghent and Stockport.
A January 2008 structure fire at 28 Knitt Road forced a woman to jump from a second-story window to safety; and then a July 2011 barn/shed fire at 16 Knitt Road. Knitt Road turns into Falls Road as it heads east, coming to a T at Route 9H—the epicenter of Fire Alley.
And now, stories are breaking of the Federal complaint charging one Eric J. Feight as an alleged co-conspirator (with Glendon S. Crawford) in an outlandish plot to irradiate Muslims with a homemade X-ray device. Feight is listed as a registered Conservative in Columbia County Board of Elections records at 115 Knitt Road—several houses down from the barn and structure fires of 2008 and 2011.
As the Times-Union reports, the terrorism suspect
formerly worked as a computer software expert and “project engineer” for Smith Control Systems... A company official said Feight has not worked at the company since 2010.
Where is Smith Control Systems? Right next door to Amanda’s Fireplace on 9H. Smith Control is #1839, and Amanda’s is #1869.
Coincidence? Almost surely. (It should be noted, Mr. Feight and his accomplice are, innocent unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.) That said, it continues to amaze how consistently one isolated area of a rural county manages to generate both news, and trouble.
In any event, the complaint alleges:
FEIGHT has designed, identified and received needed parts, built, and successfully tested a working remote initiation device to remotely control an industrial x-ray system - which CRAWFORD later demonstrated - and that remote initiation device is powered by a plug-in cigarette lighter electrical source, consistent with CRAWFORD's requirement to put the whole system into a truck so that it can be used against human targets. FEIGHT is aware of CRAWFORD's plan that the remote initiation device be used to remotely control an industrial x-ray system to injure or kill human targets deemed undesirable, and, on November 14, 2012, FEIGHT met with CRAWFORD, UCE #2, and UCE #3 near Albany, NY to discuss the purpose of the project, assign tasks, and confirm his capability to design and build a remote initiation device.
CRAWFORD and FEIGHT both have used the phrase "sterilize medical waste" to refer to the harming and killing of human beings, and stated that the purpose of their device is to kill human beings. From time to time, however, they each have expressed a reluctance to be the one who actually triggers the device to kill.
Not mentioned so far during the debate about TCI’s two fires (and desire to remain) in Ghent isthe company’s brief stay in the Town of Greenport during the late 1980s, after being kicked out of Ulster County.
And, as happened before with its mismanagement in Newburgh and later in Ghent, TCI’s Greenport activities resulted in a major explosion.
A front-page article in the June 22nd, 1987 edition of The Register-Star reported that a transformer blast that day “rocked an area within a half-mile” of TCI’s facility on the Industrial Tract.
The “blast” threw worker Louis Smith of Stuyvesant 20 feet, and landing him in Columbia Memorial Hospital with undisclosed injuries:
The explosion was audible at the Greenport town hall, according to Greenport Officer-in-Charge John Hawks... Greenport firemen were called to the scene [along with] Columbia County Sheriff Paul Proper and Undersheriff James Bertram.
EnCon officials were expected to arrive on the scene later this morning. Some transformers contain levels of PCBs. It was unknown this morning whether the explosion caused any leakage of the suspected carcinogens.
By 1988, TCI was reëstablished on Falls Industrial Road in Ghent, the blast apparently not having given that Town’s planning board any cause for concern. In March 1989, a young TCI worker (also named Smith, but no known relation) died after being overcome by fumes at TCI’s new plant.
The search for this article was prompted by a brief mention in a 1989 report on the fatality, alluding to the earlier Greenport explosion, spotted by Patti Matheney of GhentCANN.
Why this earlier explosion has never come up is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the barrage of major news of 1987—the Wiley Gates trial, a massive October snowstorm, the televised testimony of Philmont native Ollie North, the death of Jackie Gleason?—somehow blotted this event from local memory.
Honoring the service of local firefighters ought to include taking every possible step to protect the lives that first responders put on the line every time they respond to a fire.
Unfortunately, in the case of the inferno last August at TCI of NY in Ghent, newly-uncovered evidence suggests that key officials may have ignored a direct warning which came well in advance of the company’s catastrophic August 2012 fire.
A report from February 2012 clearly demonstrates that the use of highly-explosive sodium metal at TCI (a processor of PCBs) was made known to multiple officials at least five months beforehand in a State Homeland Security report obtained by Patti Matheney of GhentCANN.
In the post-mortem discussions of the August disaster, it has been widely noted that scores of firefighters narrowly cheated death, withdrawing from the scene only moments before more than a dozen explosions rocked the Ghent night sky.
“We were only minutes away from bagpipes and flag-draped coffins,” Churchtown Fire Company 1st Lieutenant Nathan Chess wrote in a brave open letter to the community:
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. ... When exposed it creates an exothermic reaction and produces hydrogen gas (i.e.: Kaboom!).
Similarly, West Ghent Fire Chief Jim Cesternino praised TCI employee Tim Coons as a “guardian angel” and “hero” for rushing to alerting firefighters on the scene to the presence of sodium:
Coons was on scene and was able to provide us with information about some of the building contents. Providing that information to us saved firefighters lives.
However, neither luck nor guardian angels should have been needed that night, as the presence of sodium (and the danger it posed when doused with water) had already been reported to top County and West Ghent emergency managers earlier in the year. Nevertheless, documents show that water was sprayed into the building near this sodium, immediately touching off explosions.
Documents disclosed by The New York State Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services now show that several key officials were alerted to the use of sodium metal by TCI subcontractor Power Station Subservices (PSS). Moreover, the explosion risk posed by sodium was described specifically.
On February 29th, 2012, Investigations Branch Deputy Chief Randi Shadic forwarded a report on TCI’s previous fire in several trailers outside the building in January. That earlier fire caused some $300,000 in damages and led to an extensive investigation of its cause. Page 7 of this widely-circulated February report said that in the wake of the January fire,
TCI staff provided Material Safety Data Sheets ... to the fire investigation team. The MSDS Sheets are for the products routinely handled, stored, produced and disposed of by both TCI and PSS. One of the products used by PSS identified as “40% Sodium Dispersion in Transformer Oil” is identified as being capable of “spontaneous combustion in moist air”. The same product is identified as “reacting violently with water.”
Copies of this report were sent by Homeland Security to West Ghent’s Cesternino, Columbia County Fire Coordinator James VanDeusen (now retired), and New York State Police Investigator William Mulren working out of the Livingston barracks on Route 9.
Again, this warning came five months prior to the much more dangerous and disastrous one in August.
Still, NYS Homeland Security’s interviews suggest that on the night of the second fire in August, the presence and danger posed by sodium at TCI came as news to leadership on the scene.
In an interview with investigators, Cesternino notes that Coons alerted him to the sodium sometime shortly after 10 pm at the scene of the fire -- and that he asked for “more information” about it, and asked for another company’s foam truck to be called in.
Nevertheless, the West Ghent chief’s interview and those of rank-and-file firefighters from the many companies responding indicates that teams were told to “drown” the fire via the roof.
This led, in the narrative of one Stockport firefighter, to an almost immediate reaction:
“Once we got a truck we used a deck gun and were spraying it through the overhead door at the rear. Initially we had the stream pointed to the right. I had them move it to the left or west and when we did the building started to rumble. It sounded like a hundred people pounding on the metal building and the fire really took off. Then we heard what sounded like a propane tank exploding. We had to pull back and hide behind the roll off dumpsters
Despite the “news” from Coons that sodium was in the building, and the request for a foam truck, Cesternino reports that
The plan was to surround and drownd [sic] the fire. Claverack was able to spray water through the top of the overhead door of the loading dock.... As soon as they started spraying water things started reacting inside the building. I was out front and a big blast of smoke came out the front. I could see what looked like camera flashes going off inside. The crews in the back were reporting explosions on the radio and saying they had to get out. I ordered an evacuation...
It is thus doubly perplexing and troubling to read that in spite of the warning from Homeland Security five months before, plus the warning from Coons just after the fire was discovered, firefighters were sent to douse parts of the building with water. It is of course possible that the sodium might have started exploding anyway, had any wet materials in the building come into contact with it as the fire progressed .
But the direct cause-and-effect described in these interviews—pops, reactions and explosions resulting from water sprays—leads to the hard conclusion that the risk may not have been adequately communicated to those putting their lives on the line for the community.
Also of note from these documents: The Columbia County Fire Coordinator’s office had requested Shadic’s unit’s assistance with determining the “origin and cause“ of the earlier January fire in part because it occurred “in the general vicinity of what had been a series of suspicious or incendiary fire[s],” Shadic stated in a January 27th email.
The Register-Star reports that authorities “have tentatively identified the plane that crashed into the Hudson River near Germantown yesterday as a Grumman G-44A, an old amphibious military reconnaissance craft, that left a private air field in Copake at about 4 p.m. Thursday.” (Earlier reports had suggested that the plane took off from Richmor Aviation in Ghent.)
Police are not releasing the assumed pilot’s name, but it is not difficult to ascertain what private airfields exist at that location. This website and others list a “Copake Lake Seaplane Base” and “B Flat Farm Airport” close by each other in the town, each operated by Michael B. Braunstein.
The reference to a seaplane would appear likely to correspond to the “amphibious” craft specified in the article above. Braunstein has two Craryville mailing addresses, one on Golf Course Road, the other on Country Club Road.