Problems from N.Y. fire mostly minor

Saturday August 4, 2012

WEST GHENT, N.Y. -- Authorities were investigating what caused a large fire at a transformer recycling company, which prompted warnings to residents of a largely rural area along the New York-Massachusetts state line to stay indoors for much of Thursday. Initial tests found no evidence of contamination.

The fire at TCI of New York broke out Wednesday night in a small industrial park 25 miles south of Albany. About 40 homes were evacuated, and Columbia County officials advised residents within a 15-mile radius to stay inside with windows closed and the air conditioning off through Thursday morning. Massachusetts officials made the same recommendation as a precaution because the smoky plume was tracking eastward.

About 20,000 people live in the affected area. Emergency officials were giving them information about cleaning soot and other debris that fell on their gardens, vehicles, pets and livestock, mostly advising use of soap and water and discarding any produce covered in ash.

The stubborn fire fueled by diesel, propane and mineral oil was extinguished by Thursday afternoon after crews smothered the flames with foam. Two firefighters suffered unspecified injuries.

"This was a terrible fire. Any time you have a fire in a chemical facility where chemicals are stored you have the potential for a very difficult situation," said Jerome Hauer, commissioner of the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

The stay-indoors advisory was lifted Thursday afternoon after tests of soot, which accumulated on cars and in swimming pools, showed no evidence of contamination from PCBs, a suspected carcinogen at use in the facility. Tests results for dioxin, a potential byproduct of the burning, were expected by Friday.

"Based on the information we have right now, there doesn’t seem to be any problem," Hauer said.

Crews battling the blaze overnight retreated before the fire set off a series of suspected propane-tank explosions that sent a fireball hundreds of feet into the sky. Cars at one local dealership were sprinkled with quarter-inch pieces of ash. Returning firefighters were scrubbed off and rinsed by hazmat teams.

The hills of Columbia County are interspersed with quaint villages, newer developments and pricey weekend homes tucked into the woods. Many of the people here heeded the call to stay inside all morning, but at least one person complained she was never warned. Jennifer Hubbard, a resident of nearby Philmont, said she found out from a friend who called her at 10 a.m.

"Elderly residents, people with infants at home were allowed to sleep through the night without knowing about the fire and possibly toxic smoke," she said.

Others appeared not to care.

The emergency declaration didn’t stop a group of golfers from playing Thursday morning at the nine-hole Meadowgreens Golf Course, about two miles south of the fire scene.

"They chose to go out. They chose to play," said Buddy Pfeil, who runs the pro shop.

TCI’s website says it disposes of electrical equipment containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. PCBs were once used as coolants in electrical equipment and are a suspected carcinogen.

The company released a statement saying they were "fully cooperating with the various agencies involved in the fire investigation and cleanup efforts."

"We deeply regret any inconvenience caused to surrounding homeowners and businesses during the response efforts," said the company, which plans to rebuild the facility.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state was working with the local communities and "committing every resource available to assist the county."


Associated Press writers Chris Carola, Michael Hill and George M. Walsh contributed from Albany, N.Y.


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