Posted at: 08/17/2012 12:14 AM
| Updated at: 08/17/2012 12:17 AM
By: Dan Levy
WEST GHENT - Two weeks ago, firefighters in Ghent were battling the largest -- and many believe -- the most dangerous fire in Columbia County history. In the wake of the TCI chemical fire, the community now finds itself in another firestorm.
About 200 residents of Columbia County jammed into the West Ghent Fire Station expecting to get answers, what they didn't expect was that the owner of TCI would be a no show.
"There's no point to this meeting without TCI," Mary Evans, of Livingston, shouted angrily. "Where is TCI?"
It was standing room only but what the people clearly wouldn't stand for was that no representative from TCI bothered to show up.
An announcement was made that the owner had a death in the family and was unable to attend. Someone in the crowd then shouted, "And nobody else was available?"
A chorus of boos rang out.
"The fact that TCI didn't send anyone to this meeting and I have to sit there for an hour and fifteen minutes and find that out is wrong," Evans reiterated.
Positioned in the front of the large fire station, facing the overflow crowd, was a long table with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, New York State Department of Health, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets, New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, New York State Police, and the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
Brian Hemlock, owner of TCI, was also listed on the agenda sheet, and was expected to give a presentation.
"Notifying you, we dropped the ball," confessed Lieutenant Thomas Lamphear, of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office, "Plain and simple, there's no other way to put it, we dropped the ball."
Lamphear suggested evacuations might have been warranted however, Columbia County officials had much more on their minds the evening of August 2nd then just the fire.
The community, on Thursday night, found out about another bizarre twist to the story. At the very same time when fifteen fire companies were battling the TCI inferno, it was not the only emergency in town.
While pondering a mass evacuation, state police and Columbia County Sheriff's deputies were responding to a home invasion in the area, where five armed suspects were being chased through the woods.
All of those suspects have since been captured however at the time, ordering evacuations, with armed suspects on the loose, was a risk not everyone was willing to take.
"They dropped the ball and our kids are going to suffer and none of us, I hope, are going to stop until we get the answers we deserve," said Courtney Powell, of Ghent.
State and federal officials who began sampling air, water, and soil quality the night of the fire insisted then, and now, that everything is safe.
"We have a lot of PCB data and all our off site samples -- more than 30 for PBC -- came back non detect," according to Keith Coertz, a regional spill engineer for DEC.
DEC conducted tests in Philmont, Stuyvesant Falls, Kinderhook, Valatie, Claverack, Chatham, and Austerlitz.
Initial on-site sampling of soil, oil, and water was done by EPA. Results came back with only one hit of PCB in soil at 0.137 parts per million, which is very low and below the state standards for industrial and residential sites.
Many Columbia County residents refuse to accept the scientific findings.
"At my age I'm not worried any more," said John MacPherson of Greenport. "I'm still breathing. I'm annoyed (because of my grandchildren."
"And our animals, and our water supply," John's wife, Anne, said, completing his sentence.
One of the changes that's likely to come about because of the incident is the implementation of a reverse 911 system.
"I know there's a number of possible alert systems but there's no question there needs to be an emergency alert system for people in this county," said Assemblywoman Didi Barrett (D - Hudson Valley), who organized Thursday night's community meeting.
"That's a really scary part of this that the people didn't know," Barrett continued. "We need to be able to alert people at this time."