Monday August 6, 2012

The beauty of the Berkshires provides a large part of the charm of living here and of visiting here, but our pristine air has long been at the mercy of the winds coming from the west. We received a harsh reminder on Thursday when a large chemical fire in West Ghent, New York, not far from the Berkshire border, sent noxious fumes eastward into South County.

The fire broke out Wednesday night at TCI of New York and was extinguished by Thursday afternoon. The company recycles transformers, which can contain PCBs as county residents are well aware from the General Electric days, but there was no evidence of PCB contamination from the soot. Still, the fire dropped ash in some spots and justifiably alarmed residents in the path of the smoke plume.

Twelve years ago, Berkshire environmentalists joined their Hudson Valley counterparts in a long battle to stop construction of a giant, coal-fired cement plant to be built near Hudson, N.Y. that would have sent an estimated 10,000 tons of pollutants a year into the air over the Berkshires. Six years ago, St. Lawrence Cement abandoned its plan in what was an all too rare victory for the environment. Nonetheless, pollutants from plants from New York state, Ohio and Pennsylvania come our way, contributing to an air quality in Massachusetts that is worse than it should be considering the state's strict rules on domestic plants.

It has yet to be determined what caused the fire, which sent a fireball hundreds of feet into the air, but that must be learned and precautions established so that will not happen again before TCI can rebuild and return to business. Berkshire County officials and environmentalists must insist on being kept informed because this problem is not solely the concern of Ghent or Columbia County or New York State. Just as the St. Lawrence plant proposal was our business in the Berkshires, the TCI fire is our business as well.