Public must be informed

Gloversville residents living near the site of the vacant Tradition Leather building on West 11th Avenue, across the street from Kingsborough Elementary School, witnessed something mysterious this summer. Government officials wearing environmental protection gear could be seen coming in and out of the old building, but local officials would not explain why.

The unpleasant answer was not revealed until this newspaper obtained information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Federal government documents showed the Gloversville Fire Department executed a search warrant at the site June 4. The department turned its findings over to the EPA, which then had its emergency-response contractor investigate the site June 6. The EPA determined hazardous chemicals were inside the old tannery, including 8,000 pounds of hydrogen sulfide powder, intermingled with incompatible hydrogen peroxide. If mixed, the chemicals would react to produce hydrogen sulfide, a highly flammable and toxic gas.

These findings prompted an immediate cleanup to “prevent a fire/explosion and a release of hazardous substances,” said EPA spokeswoman Larisa Romanowski. The chemicals were removed by Aug. 15, after an operation that cost the federal government $330,000.

All of this went on without any notification to the public by the EPA or the Fire Department.

Officials didn’t even contact the Gloversville Enlarged School District, according to district Superintendent Michael Vanyo. Thankfully, no summer programs were being conducted at Kingsborough School at the time, although school employees were still there.

Even after this newspaper obtained information from the EPA?revealing the cleanup, City Fire Chief Beth Whitman-Putnam still provided no public information about the incident, referring all inquires to City Attorney Anthony Casale. He declined comment.

Mayor Dayton King did speak about the issue when asked for comment, and we commend him for fulfilling that part of his duty as mayor.

The Fire Department deserves credit for executing the search warrant at Tradition Leather that led to the cleanup, but there is no excuse for withholding information about an issue that involves public safety.

As soon as they identified the hazardous chemicals at Tradition Leather, the fire chief and the EPA should have informed the public, especially the neighbors and the school.

Too often, local officials allow the fear of legal issues or potential liability to silence them. This kind of fear can hurt the very nature of public service.

We shudder to think of the tragedy that could have occurred if the chemicals caused a toxic gas while clueless neighbors sat in their homes or stood in their yards and people walked in and out of the school building.