Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) questions the State’s handling of the TCI fire in Ghent in a must-read post on the Times-Union’s Green Blog. Haight’s challenge includes these statements:
I’m not satisfied with what I’m hearing about the state’s testing. According to the TU article on Saturday, the DEC will test for dioxin this week “even though state health officials do not think the dioxin testing is necessary.” Say what? It is a well known fact that incomplete combustion of PCBs can result in the formation of dioxins and furans. According to a 1997 EPA report: “Products of incomplete combustion of PCBs include polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDFs) and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), both of which may be more toxic than PCBs themselves and have been associated with embryotoxicity, teratogenicity, reproductive effects, and oncogenicity.” (emphasis added)
Much of the affected area is farmland. When persistent organic pollutants like PCBs or dioxin get into the food chain they can bioaccumulate, ending up in vegetables, dairy products and meat. If the fire released dioxin, which is certainly possible, it is absolutely necessary for state officials to test milk and other farm products produced in the region in order to protect public health. Yet from the news reports it appears that as of now the state has no plans to conduct these tests.
So what was I to say to the woman who called me on Friday afternoon who had evacuated her family to a motel in the Adirondacks after learning she was within the 15-mile radius of the fire and had had her windows open all night? She wanted objective information about whether it was safe to return to her home and she didn’t trust the government’s proclamation that DEC sampling showed “no evidence of a public health concern.” Why should she? If state officials aren’t speaking to reporters, it doesn’t engender trust or confidence.
With the TCI fire story still evolving quickly, some bits and pieces collected from around the web (along with some independent research), follow below—before these get dispersed:
(1) CBS6 in Albany reported at 8:30 pm last night that the TCI fire had reignited. Apparently it was tamped back down by firefighters in about an hour.
(2) Rensselaer County legislators are raising a great deal more of a ruckus about the fire and its aftermath than Columbia County supervisors, so far. According to Fox23, officials in the neighboring county are calling for extensive soil and water testing, studies of the effects on farms and wells, and also a public hearing to discuss the situation.
(3) Register-Star reporter John Mason gleaned important observations when he consulted independent experts for his Saturday article about pollution risks from the fire.
Mason interviewed longtime PCB activist Manna Jo Greene (who spearheaded Clearwater’s work on Hudson River dredging for many years) and the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at UAlbany's School of Public Health, Dr. David Carpenter, who also runs a testing laboratory.
Both Dr. Carpenter and Greene characterized dioxins, which can arise from the burning of PCBs, as even more dangerous than PCBs. Carpenter identified dioxins and furans as potent carcinogens even in small doses, and contributing (in Mason’s paraphrase) to ªheart disease, diabetes, altered fertility, increased vulnerability of immune systems, asthma, and ‘a huge variety of common diseases.’” Calling for the facility not to be reopened, Greene in turn noted that “dioxin is Agent Orange.”
Regarding early assurances from officials about low PCB risks from the TCI fire, Dr. Carpenter cautioned that it “takes a least a week to get a good, sensitive result, whether in air or dust. An analytical result takes days, not hours.” Acknowledging that while some “quick and dirty method” of testing can be performed, Dr. Carpenter told Mason that “it’s irresponsible to make the statement there are no PCBs in the air when you don’t know (for certain). Assurances not based on fact are dangerous in my judgment.”
He added that there is a “great tendency by state agencies to want to reassure people, but it’s dangerous to do that and say it’s all right and then find in retrospect it’s not all right.” The risk at this point, he said, is probably no longer what is left in the air, but in any residues on property and soil, which should be treated “as a very dangerous chemical.”
(4) Along with widespread calls for Columbia County to join its neighbors in Dutchess and Berkshire counties in installing a reverse 911 system to give people timely alerts of major emergencies, emergency management officials also may want to review how emergency maps are drawn.
Official warnings, issued some 10 hours after the fire began, instructed residents in a “15-mile radius” of the fire on Falls Industrial Park Road to stay inside, keep windows closed and turn off air conditioners until an all-clear notice was issued. However, the map circulated along with these warnings depicted a far smaller area of roughly 15 miles in diameter—a 7.5 mile radius.
Even after the map was taken down on sites such as Facebook, officials continued to make ambiguous 15-mile references into their 1:45 pm press conferences. Residents (such as this writer) whose homes are more than 7.5 miles but less than 15 miles as the crow flies from the site were left to wonder whether the alert applied to us or not.
The entirety of Columbia County, at its mid-section, is only about 18 miles wide, and the site was located roughly halfway across that line. As the above diagrams show, a 15-mile radius would cover almost the entire County, while a 15-mile diamter circle would be far more localized.
The difference is a good deal more than double the area: a circle with a 15-mile diameter covers approximately 176 square miles; one with a 15-mile radius covers 707 square miles, a factor of four. A 15-mile radius would stretch counter-clockwise from the bottom of the above map from Taconic State Park to West Stockbridge to Nassau to Castleton and back around to Cairo.
No doubt the radius/diameter confusion was an honest mistake, made in the heat of the moment (definitely no pun intended). Nevertheless, such details are crucial in an emergency, and both residents and first responders deserve to have the County devote enough resources to assigning people to nailing them down.
(5) This site sent a direct query to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson Mary Mears, asking “Did EPA issue any statement Friday regarding the TCI fire in Ghent, NY, e.g. regarding test results?”
Mears replied via email on Saturday:
“No, we have not issued any statements. EPA is in a supporting role with NY State and Columbia County in the lead for this response. I had heard late Friday afternoon that NY and the County may put out a statement, but I am not sure if they did.”
However, multiple news reports on Friday and Saturday contained either statements from Mears, or purported summaries by County officials of EPA findings. A follow-up message to Mears has been sent, asking for a clarification of what EPA’s position and official statements are on the matter.
UPDATE: A Hudson resident makes the insightful point that there have been three fires—one at Amanda’s Fireplace, and two now at TCI—within a few hundred yards of each other in the past couple of years. Makes you wonder if there is a firebug in the neighborhood.
Listening to this afternoon’s press conference by County, State and Federal officials on WGXC was frustrating, as two out of the three speakers were almost inaudible—either due to mumbling or the poor quality of the audio feed. (CBS6’s live stream was apparently much clearer.) With that caveat, here are some notes on what was said, to the extent that it could be heard:
• The fire is now “99% out” and the cause of the fire is “under investigation.”
• The alert for the 15-mile radius (or rather, 15-mile diameter) of the site has now been lifted.
• “A drum of PCBs,” said to be a “very small amount” was onsite. (A little polychlorinated biphenyl goes a long way.)
• 20,000 gallons of mineral oil, some motor oil, and some propane tanks were also onsite, contributing one supposes to the intensity of the fire. (Mineral oil? Is there an epidemic of diaper rash in the County?)
• Officials are “doing some additional testing,” but claim that no traces of PCBs were found in residues near the site.
• Testing for “other chemicals,” such as highly toxic dioxins—which, as previously reported here, PCBs can morph into when burned—is not yet complete, but is expected maybe by tomorrow.
• It was decided to were “pull out” firefighters at some point due to the intensity of the blaze and lack of certainty as to what was onsite.
• A question was asked by reporters in the audience about what agency is “supposed to be monitoring this facility,” and when it was last “checked out,” especially considering that it had a smaller fire barely six months ago. “That is under investigation,” was the answer.
• People were still working there after the January fire; it isn’t clear if anyone was working there last night.
• Officials feel satisfied that they did what they could to “notify everybody as quickly as possible,” while conceding that unlike some neighboring counties, Columbia does not have a reverse 911 system.
• The Columbia County Health Department will be issuing a guidance document on how to deal with any soot people find on their property or in their homes.
• The 15-mile radius was chosen to ensure that if there were a wind change, causing a change in the direction of the plume, people would be on alert.
• In response to a question about whether any people were called in the potentially most-impacted areas, the answer was “I would say no.”
• The County requested help from State Emergency Management, and received it asw ell frm ROTC, Dutchess, Greene and Rensselaer counties; a truck also came from an Air Force base at 9 am this morning.
• A speaker commented that after 25-30 years of fighting fires, “I have never seen explosions like on this fire.”
UPDATE: I’ve spoken with Rick Georgeson, a public information officer for the DEC, and he is going to attempt to pull any records the State might have of hazardous materials stored onsite at TCI.
UPDATE #2: The Associated Press is calling the fire “stubborn” and that “Police say the firefighters are spraying foam Thursday morning because they don't know exactly what is burning. A reader reports as of 1 pm that a dark plume is still visible from Route 66 heading north toward Chatham.
A reader in the Ghent/Stockport area just sent in the above photo of a lingering plume this morning from TCI’s fire. As previously noted, one County official has said that at its peak, this plume was two miles long.
Another reader reports an as-yet unconfirmed rumor from a Columbia Memorial Hospital worker that the National Guard was brought in to assist firefighters. Anecdotally, CMH has apparently had some walk-ins with eye and throat irritation.
A Great Barrington emergency management team issued telephone calls around 5 a.m. on Thursday to residents of Egremont, Alford, Sheffield and Great Barrington about the fire in West Ghent and the possibility that their may be toxic fumes drifting their way in an air plume because of the wind patterns. As of 8:15 a.m., the alert has been expanded to Stockbridge, West Stockbridge, Richmond and Sheffield. Residents have been warned to close their windows and not use air conditioners which may filter polluted air into homes.
Meanwhile, while some Hudson officials have attempted to tamp down concerns, The Catskill Daily Mail reports that even eastern Greene County residents are advised to turn off their A/Cs and stay inside. The paper writes:
Occasional explosions were heard inside the building, including one series that resembled rolling thunder, causing some spectators to run in the opposite direction.
“There are a lot of hazardous materials here,” said Emergency Medical Services Coordinator P.J. Keeler. “That’s our concern.” Keeler was pulling a cooler that had dozens of water bottles stacked on top of it.
County Emergency Management Director William Black said the building contained big mineral oil tanks, two tractor trailers of fuel oil, fork lifts with propane tanks, and other hazardous substances. “It’s the combination when they mix we have to be concerned with,” he said. “There’s sodium in there.”
As expected, more than one Democratic candidate has filed petitions to compete in a primary for the new 107th Assembly seat, The new district covers all of Rensselaer, plus a handful of towns in Columbia and Washington.
The Register-Star only mentioned one of the candidates. The paper also missed a separate primary on the Working Families line.
Rensselaer County’s Keith Hammond and Columbia County’s Cheryl Roberts both submitted signatures to secure the Democratic line. 76% of the Democrats in the newly-mapped district live in Rensselaer County.
In addition, Roberts faces a challenge for the Working Families line from Brenda Mahar. Again, the vast majority of Working Families voters in the new 107th live in Rensselaer—90% of them.
Meanwhile quasi-incumbent Steve McLaughlin (of the former 108th) is unchallenged on the Republican, Conservative and Independence line. Republicans, Conservatives and Independence Party voters outnumber Democrats in the 107th by a 3-2 ratio.
The State Board has deemed all of these petitions valid on their face, meaning that they appear to contain more than the minimum necessary signatures to get on the ballot for the primary (where there’s more than one candidate) or the general (if the line is uncontested). Election boards in New York do not question the validity of signatures unless a citizen files a challenge to them.
Imagine if Mitt Romney were interviewed on FOX News about his Presidential aspirations by a co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Democrats would howl that this represented blatantly biased and unethical journalism.
How can the same party which is promoting a candidate present an objective news interview of their own candidate?, Democrats would rightly ask.
Yet the progressive, Hudson-based WGXC regularly engages in a similar practice. Its nonprofit airwaves are used at times for partisan interviews of political candidates and officials with whom a host is closely alllied, and in some cases has endorsed and even is actively campaigning.
For example, County Democratic Committee vice-chair Victor Mendolia recently interviewed one of his own party’s candidates for the 107th Assembly, attorney Cheryl Roberts, on the station’s @Issue show.* (When recently asked a direct question about his then hush-hush endorsement of Roberts, Mendolia turned tail and fled in silence.)
By interviewing his own committee’s choice for Statewide office, the host not only provided his own candidate with free publicity; he also did so in a forum where that candidate could feel shielded from any serious challenge over her controversial local activities. Like Romney being interviewed by FOX, the candidate could rest assured that the interviewer would be friendly, bordering on fawning. That Roberts’ portion of the interview was barely audible did not make this episode any less contrary to basic journalism ethics.
Annotated screenshot from Cheryl Roberts’s campaign website
Predictably enough, a link to Mendolia’s softball interview was swiftly posted on Roberts’ campaign website. The post was made by an anonymous webmaster called “Columbia Dems.” Now, it’s well-known that Mendolia handles most or even all of the Columbia County Democrats’ (rather drab) web presence. In any case, he’s the only person listed in that user’s’ “circles” at Columbia Dems Google profile. Indeed, all of the posts on Roberts’ website to date have been made by the user Columbia Dems.
Professional electronic journalists should present the news with integrity and decency, avoiding real or perceived conflicts of interest...
Roberts faces a primary challenge from Keith Hammond, a former Rensselaer County legislator and town councilman, in September. Given that the bulk of the new district is in Rensselaer County or even farther north, and includes only a handful of Columbia County towns, many expect that this will be a tough contest for Roberts. The winner of the primary will in turn face one of at least two Republicans also vying for the seat.
A search of the station’s website turns up no mentions of the other three candidates besides Roberts. Of the four potential candidates for this office, WGXC thus far appears to have given only one the opportunity to be heard—the preferred candidate of the host of @Issue.
The station’s stock reply to such observations made privately by several people has been, “Well, hy don’t you do a show then?” But community radio should not have to mean that every single one of the area’s countless interests group needs to have its own separate public affairs program in order to be heard. Many groups and constituencies only have newsworthy content a few times a year. The whole point of public affairs programming is to gather that content from diverse sources, and present timely issues as they crop up, in a reasonably objective forum.
The normal and proper manner of handling such political interviews would be to assign them to a netural host who has no obvious potential conflicts, real or perceived. That independent interviewer would also quiz the other candidates as well. Among the questions that the RTDNA suggests that radio and other electronic media should ask themselves about conflicts of interest are:
Will the private actions of a journalist with a news source or newsmaker give the appearance of an unprofessional connection?
Does the subject matter of a story benefit the reporter, the manager, or the station? [...] If so, is there another source or approach for the story that would eliminate that potential conflict of interest?
Does the station have a policy on if and how employees can participate in political campaigns? [...] Public participation in political events, campaign contributions, or personal messages of support on private time have no place in the life of most journalists. Stations should develop a very specific list of what political activity is never acceptable for their journalists and other employees.
Is there a system in place to allow journalists and managers to recuse themselves from editorial decisions about stories from which a conflict of interest—real or perceived—may arise. [...] Managers should take time to consider inevitable conflicts that may arise and discuss how to deal with them before the conflict occurs.
Now, perhaps what WGXC attempts to offer isn’t journalism at all. But in the absence of such guidelines, the station would appear to be offering certain candidates friendly to one or more of its hosts free advertorials—which might even constitute campaign donations of in-kind services.
Naturally, hosts like Mendolia are free to speak their own partisan opinions. But generally such figures are media guests, not gatekeepers. Passing such opinions off as “news” or “public affairs” or “just discussion,” without full disclosure of an clear bias or at least providing balancing viewpoints, is best left to disreputable outlets like FOX.
Meanwhile, Mendolia’s cohort and CCDC chair Cyndy Hally has cynically whitewashed what she has called Roberts’ “environmental sensitivity.” Hall somehow imagines that thousands of residents will forget how Roberts repeatedly brushed aside their environmental, quality of life and economic concerns about the fate of Hudson’s South Bay.
As legal advisor to the Hudson waterfront plan (LWRP), Roberts used her position to gloss over the details of written comments from citizens, obtusely misinterpret substantive issues, and offer glib rejections of both well-researched and heartfelt concerns. Instead of being “sensitive” to local concerns, Roberts on the contrary employed slipshod reasoning, incomplete research, and pretzel legal logic to incorporate virtually all the demands of the Swiss-owned mining/cement company Holcim, and its subcontractor O&G, based in Connecticut.
Hall is well-familiar with this recent history, thus making her claim of “environmental sensitivity” all the more cynical.
*ENDNOTE: Such conflict-of-interest problems have been raised by this site in the past year with two of the station’s key personnel, both on the station and in relation to @Issue, where Mendolia also frequently interviews other candidates and allied officials on the show. When the show launched, it was co-hosted by Register-Star reporter Francesca Olsen, an attempt to somewhat temper the show’s slant; but Olsen has moved elsewhere, and Mendolia is almost always the sole interviewer. I myself have once been a reluctant guest on @Issue, though declining subsequent WGXC appearance requests due to this and other reservations about the overall enterprise.
Does healthy, organic food cost more than “regular” food? And what’s a hamburger supposed to cost around here, anyway?
Ever since Grazin’ revitalized a formerly-empty restaurant space on Warren Street, one has heard more than a few hyperbolic discussions about prices, with little actual relationship to the reality of the 21st Century cost of delivering a decent meal.
The chart below collects some representative menu prices for burgers in the region. For the purposes of a fair comparison, the price of a side of fries was included if those don’t come automatically with the burger:
As the hard numbers above show, the price of a burger in these parts can range from a low of $5.50 to a high of $13. The average burger price of the 15 establishments list above is $9.98—precisely 3 cents higher than than that of the Grazin’ all-organic, Animal Welfare Certifed burger.
In short, getting a healthy, organic, responsibly-created, locally-sourced, farm-to-table burger is no more expensive than eating at most any other non-fastfood restaurant in the area... which just points up the irrationality of some of the anti-organic voices in our midst. Those who denounce $9-$10 for a burger as outrageous clearly haven’t been getting out much lately.
Now some Rush Limbaugh listeners may cry foul, noting that they could get a slider and fries at McDonald’s or Burger King for even less than any of the prices above. Yes, you could... except those aren’t hamburgers. Those are reprocessed sewage patties masquerading as food. If you eat them regularly, you will almost certainly die early. And the price of that to your family and society far exceeds anything that buying organic ever could.