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Dec. 10--COHOES -- A chemical plant destroyed in a spectacular blaze last year has been fined $33,000 by the state for bypassing pollution control equipment just weeks earlier to illegally vent highly flammable chemical gas directly into the air.
Investigators from the state Department of Environmental Conservation found the problem at Shelter Enterprises in September 2012, about two weeks before much of the Saratoga Street plant was left in ruins from a huge overnight fire. The damage was so extreme that investigators could not determine how the fire started.
However, during production that month the plant emitted pentane gas directly into the air because pollution control equipment was not working, DEC inspectors found. In addition to being very flammable, pentane can cause nerve damage and lung problems when inhaled.
"We could never determine the exact cause of the fire. Electrical was a possibility, but we could not tell because of the amount of damage," Cohoes Fire Chief Joe Fahd said Monday. He said the cause did not appear suspicious.
Asked about the pentane emissions found by DEC and any potential relationship to the Sept. 20 fire, Fahd said, "Everything they do there (at Shelter) is highly flammable."
Shelter used expandable polystyrene beads -- which emit pentane -- to produce foam products used in building and road construction projects, house construction and packaging applications.
According to a Nov. 26 agreement signed by Shelter and DEC Regional Director Eugene Kelly, the company admitted that a thermal oxidizer -- equipment meant to remove at least 95 percent of pentane emissions during production by heating them to at least 1,350 degrees -- was "not operational" during a Sept. 6 inspection by DEC.
"Department staff observed ... all the pentane emissions were being vented directly into the atmosphere," according to the agreement.
The agreement did not address whether emissions equipment was working by the time the fire broke out.
Firefighters initially tried to battle the blaze from inside the building but were driven out as the flames grew too intense. Parts of the plant later collapsed, and sections of Interstate 787, as well as the Cohoes-Waterford Bridge that carries Route 32 across the Mohawk River into Waterford, were shut down during the fire.
An attempt to reach Shelter owner Jeffory Myers, who is also a local real estate developer, for comment was not successful. Fahd said it appears the company is rebuilding at the site, although they "are rebuilding very slowly."
According to an online bulletin from safety regulators from the United Kingdom, built-up pentane vapors are so flammable that contact with a hot light bulb is enough to cause a fire. Temporary heaters, or improper wiring or electrical switches, can also cause vapors to ignite.
According to a New Jersey Health Department Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, when containers of pentane burn, they can release poisonous gases.