With the walls of opprobrium from governmental agencies at all levels closing in on him, how did Alan Ginsberg, the embattled long-time owner of TechCity, the former IBM site in the Town of Ulster, respond? A four-page December 31 letter from the Albany law firm of Young/Sommer LLC to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional counsel seemed to indicate that the Ginsberg interests were throwing in the towel – but only on their own terms.
The year-end communication foisted off on their governmental opponents much of the responsibility for site cleanup. “Under state law and common law,” it said, “the owner of a building is responsible to ensure that the building does not pose nuisance.”
This is the argument in its simplest form: Party A buys a property and extracts resources from it, leaving an environmentally degraded and heavily polluted site. Party A then sells the site to Party B, which has no resources, for a dollar. Who is responsible for the cleanup, A or B?
IBM has always accepted responsibility for underground cleanups at its former property. But Ginsberg’s refusal to accept responsibility for the costs of above-ground cleanup, most recently expressed by this letter from his attorney, has been problematical. EPA regional director Pete Lopez, a former local assemblymember, found Ginsberg’s response to its December 11 ultimatum notice unsatisfactory.
EPA reminded Ginsberg that under law he could be held personally liable for the proper removal and cleanup of asbestos-laded demolition debris at several site locations.
Young/Sommer’s letter repeated the contention that Ginsberg “was never the owner and/or operator of this site and is a not potentially responsible party.”
In a flash of unintended humor, the missive also repeatedly used the term “Volunteer” to describe the Ginsberg operation’s status in regard to the EPA’s request for action. The help a volunteer provides involves participation but not accountability.
Rightly or not, Alan Ginsberg himself has been seen as the problem for and not the solution to TechCity’s successful integration into the Ulster County economy. To say local government has lost patience with Ginsberg would be an understatement. “Alan Ginsberg has held Ulster County hostage for over a decade, and he had made it clear that he has zero regard for the future of our community, our taxpayers, or the environment,” said Pat Ryan last week. He expressed relief that “the days of Ginsberg thwarting our economic potential are almost behind us.”
The regulatory ball keeps rolling. The Superfund law being applied in the situation doesn’t wait for the exhaustion of all legal processes. Federal resources are made available to contain and remove asbestos in named TechCity buildings and to remove the large piles of debris containing asbestos. “EPA is advancing its work to address the more immediate threats, while continuing its efforts to ensure that the property owner and operator permanently address the remaining asbestos hazards, including the piles,” Pete Lopez was quoted as saying last Wednesday.
According to the regional EPA office, Don Graham, a federal on-scene coordinator, has been appointed to lead the EPA response at TechCity. Emergency measures may begin in about a month. Graham will oversee the demolition and removal of one small building on the east side of Enterprise Drive, the sealing and securing of a larger structure next to it, and the sealing and securing of the debris piles left over from “the botched demolition” of a third building nearby.
At last Wednesday’s TechCity press conference, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan stood in front of a portable podium in one of the cavernous spaces on the west side of Enterprise Drive where the county government is completing foreclosure of the large buildings once used by Bank of America for a tax-processing operation. The west-side portion now controlled by the county includes not only the structures but also 82 acres of rich farmland once part of the Boice dairy operation.
It’s been 65 years since IBM built its Kingston facility and 25 years since IBM abruptly closed it.
In 2014 The Friends of Historic Kingston published a proud homage to the accomplishments of the facility called Kingston: The IBM Years. “Over the 43 years that the Kingston plant and engineering laboratory were operational, significant discoveries were made and projects developed by its employees that affected the world at large: the SAGE air defense system that could identify any hostile air attacks, the SABRE airline reservation system, the FAA nationwide aircraft control system, and the first interactive displays and software systems that over time would allow individuals to use computers the way we do today.”
Once completely severed from Alan Ginsberg’s control, how will the once-7,100-worker TechCity former industrial campus contribute substantially to Ulster County’s economic development? Or will the once-2.5-million-square-foot facility remain in the post-Ginsberg period a nostalgic but obsolete relic of a bygone era, a white elephant of a property ill-adapted to efficient conversion to service in a modern economy?
We don’t know. The proof will be in the pudding.
“I am relieved to see that there is action being taken on the most valuable asset to our community,” said a message from county legislator Brian Cahill, who lives near the site. “My neighbors and I have held out hope for two decades that this important parcel would make the turn and again become the once-bustling, economy-boosting engine that it can be.”
There’s always the possibility that a single large employer will swoop in and transform TechCity to its former glory in a new form. But that’s unlikely. The Young/Sommer LLC letter assesses that possibility from Ginsberg’s perspective. “Given the age of the existing structures, the real-property tax and regulatory obligations,” it said, “it is not practicable that the site could be redeveloped by a private party (other than an Amazon) without government assistance and cooperation.” Substantial governmental inducements will be necessary prior to redevelopment.