About 200 concerned Columbia County residents turned out for a meeting on Thursday night to hear about the environmental and health impact of a major fire there earlier this month.
TCI of New York is a transformer recycling plant in West Ghent that uses and stores toxic chemicals.
On Aug. 3, it burned down, leaving residents in nearby homes, and those within the path of the smoke plume concerned about the hazards the burned material might pose.
During the meeting there were several new facts revealed.
Residents officially found out that there were no PCBs or cancer-causing materials detected in any of the dozens of soot samples taken from around the county after the fire.
Concerned citizens at the meeting were also informed that, right around the same time New York State Police were responding to the fire at the TCI facility, troopers had to leave the scene for a call about a terrifying home invasion hat left residents tied up in their own house.
According to State Police Capt. Scott Brown, five suspects were arrested following the incident, and one of the suspects allegedly tried to strike a responding officer with his vehicle.
The reason it was mentioned at the meeting, Brown said, is that the alleged home invasion spread local and state resources even thinner at a critical time in the major fire response.
But at the core of the meeting was a clear message from state, local, federal law enforcement, environmental, and public health officials: each department had done the best it could to respond to the crisis, and pledged to continue to monitor and mitigate the after-effects of the massive inferno at the TCI facility.
Another thing that was made clear at the forum, was that foul play is not suspected where the fire is concerned.
Keith Goertz is the Regional Spill Engineer for the Department of Environmental Conservation.
He said, "The most important information is the analysis of the wipe samples we took throughout the county. And every single one of them came back non-detect for PCBs."
But, the hazardous materials expert says the same was not true of the on-site samples.
Goertz said, "We do have a significant amount of samples from onsite as well, and what we're finding is we're finding very low levels of PCBs there."
Some affected residents left the meeting feeling no relief from their fear about the post-fire health risk.
Anne MacPherson of Greenport said, "I think all of those firefighters and emergency people did a great job. They were there, fighting that fire. They didn't know what was in there. They could have died! But now I'm going to question the sensibility of Columbia County allowing a building, a business like this to be here, and for us not to know that we were living with a time bomb? That's awful."
State Police Captain Scott Brown said, "Right now we're confident that there was no criminality that this was not an incendiary device of any type, or that any outside element started the fire. I'm not going to get into the details, because this is a pending investigation."
But as many experts and officials were at the front of the room, the residents in the crowd said there was one person noticeably absent from the panel.
After listening to the group speak one-by-one for more than an hour, and hearing one person at the head table apologize that there was no representative from the facility itself present, Mary Evans of Livingston stood up and began screaming, "I want someone from TCI here! Without the perpetrator of this abomination being here, we are all…our time is being wasted, because we will not get the answers! I cannot believe that no one from TCI is here!"
To that sentiment, the entire crowd burst out in applause.
Another issue many residents arrived at the meeting upset about is that, they believe, they should have been informed about the fire, and evacuated away from the allegedly toxic fumes much sooner -- something for which the Columbia County Sheriff's Office took full responsibility
Lt. Tom Lanphear said, "I don't think that as the residents of this county, that we can put a price on that type of safety. We're working on it, but we did drop the ball on this situation."
And by "working on it," Lt. Lanphear means the county is considering a possible reverse-911 notification system, a way to notify residents when there's an emergency situation nearby.
Lt. Lanphear saying he's committed to making sure it's a system that residents can register for even if they only have a cell phone, and have discontinued their land line.
"All I have to say is once we set it up, register. You need to register your number. Especially if you're like me, and you no longer have a land line, you need to register," Lt. Lanphear said.
Just about the only thing everyone in the crowd seemed to agree on was the fact that first responders did a great job fighting the fire that hot August night.
During the meeting, one woman stood up and yelled, "You're all our local heroes!"
A comment also immediately followed by an outburst of clapping.