Posted at: 08/03/2012 12:36 AM
By: Dan Levy
GHENT - The air quality is safe! That word came Thursday afternoon from officials in Columbia County after fire crews spent the entire overnight period and then most of the day battling a massive chemical fire at the TCI of New York recycling company in Ghent.
Even though it's a clean bill of health for residents in a fifteen mile radius -- primarily east of the plant -- some neighbors still have their doubts. Some residents evacuated their homes, others stayed put, keeping their windows tightly shut. For many people it was a sleepless overnight that turned into an uneasy feeling of anxiety by daybreak.
The enormity of the blast and ensuing fire were frightening enough, when you factor in the chemical compounds that were stored inside the TCI plant, it had some nearby residents thinking Armageddon.
"It was just terrible, there were several big blasts," said Dimitri Bassakalis, who lives north of the plant. "It was like a mushroom, like something you see on TV. We're a quarter of a mile away and you could feel the heat."
Bassakalis' backyard swimming pool was full of ash particles. His car was covered with soot.
Mark Restifo lives due east of TCI, a place where he used to work, which means he has a pretty good idea what was inside.
"They have a lot of propane, fuel oil, diesel, and transformer oil which had PCBs in it but very low levels," Restifo said.
According to their website, TCI offers "complete disposal services for obsolete electrical equipment", some of the disposal items have PCBs. Among the items they handle are: transformers, regulators, capacitors, ballast and bulbs, and drummed oil. The company also boasts $11 million of pollution liability insurance.
Federal EPA officials, along with state health department scientists were on site all night and all day Thursday continually sampling air quality. At a news conference Thursday afternoon, the air around the fire scene was declared: "Basically back to normal."
"They found no issues with the air quality," according to William Black, Director of Emergency Management for Columbia County.
"We have information that there were no PCBs measurable," said Dr. Gus Birkhead, Deputy Commissioner of Public Health for the New York State Department of Health. "The PCBs in the fire probably burned up.
Dimitri Bassakalis said he wasn't satisfied with the results, and even though community concern may linger, the scientific community insists there's nothing to worry about, although they acknowledge more sampling needs to be done and more work lies ahead.
"The next issue that will confront the county is what to do with the residual chemicals and what to do with the site itself," said Jerry Hauer, of the Department of Homeland Security.
The state DEC will be the lead agency on that.
Meanwhile, TCI issued a statement Thursday night which said in part: "We deeply regret any inconvenience caused to surrounding homeowners and businesses."
The statement goes on to say that about 20 full and part-time workers will remain on the payroll. The company also says it intends to rebuild.