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Day three of Bethlehem Steel Fire: The fight continues as residents return home

On Friday afternoon, residents were allowed to return to their homes in the ordinarily quiet neighborhood of Bethlehem Park. The somber atmosphere of houses that once stood in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel Plant on Route 5 and Lincoln Avenue is still pierced by the sounds of fire fighters and demolition crews hard at work battling what remains of a devastating blaze.

City of Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski lifted the evacuation order for Bethlehem Park that began on Thursday night when residents either departed to friends and family or were taken by bus and vans to a warming center set up at Lackawanna Senior High School. At 2 p.m. Friday, residents were allowed to return, using the northern end of Route 5 from Ridge Road. The rest of the roadway remains closed to regular traffic.

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Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
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WBFO News
City of Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski & Erie County Deputy Commissioner of Emergency Services Greg Butcher provide an update to members of the media on Route 5 in Lackawanna.

But returning home still comes with precautions. Residents are advised to keep windows and doors closed, and limit their outside activity. Szymanski also urged them not to trespass on steel plant property or block the streets with vehicles, as fire fighters and demolition crews continue to operate on the site.

While the evacuation order was lifted, a state of emergency will remain in effect for the area for up to 30 days, though Szymanski doesn’t anticipate it will last so long.

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Environmental & Health Concerns

During the late morning hours on Friday, air quality trended towards what Szymanski referred to as “normal background” levels. The city, in conjunction with country, state, and federal officials, came to the conclusion that lifting the evacuation order would be a safe move.

But Szymanski and his fellow officials don’t yet know what kind of chemicals or toxins may have been released into the air during the height of the smoke plume that emanated from the steel plant for more than a day. Szymanski said, so far, he’s not heard any concerns over long-term effect from organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Keep in mind, the steel plan had been pumping – back when it was roaring for the 80 years it was in existence – pumping out materials that are were far more toxic than we’re putting out in the air with this fire, over the 80 years. So we’re not anticipating any long-term effects whatsoever.”

Szymanski said whenever the study of the air quality is completed, the results will be made public.

Concerns over environmental hazards extend below the skyline, too. Water runoff from the millions of gallons used to fight the fire can be seen flowing down adjacent Lincoln Avenue and into city storm drains.

Erie County Deputy Commissioner of Emergency Services Greg Butcher said the county is concerned about runoff from the fire getting into nearby Smoke Creek and Lake Erie, but couldn’t specify if it was being contained in treatment plants or let out through overflow channels.

“We’re not just monitoring air quality – which we will continue to monitor. But we’re also monitoring the runoff and what discharge may be coming from that. We haven’t identified anything that has caused a problem to this point,” said Butcher.

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Credit New York State Health Department
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New York State Health Department
Page 1 of a fact sheet being handed out to Bethlehem Park residents by members of the New York State Health Department.

Given the age of the building, exposure of asbestos may be a concern. Officials couldn’t specify if the hazardous insulation material is present in the former steel plant buildings, but speculated that there’s a possibility for it. They’re leaving any potential mitigation to the demolition crews currently working on the site.

“They are licensed,” said City of Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield. “We are deferring to them. They’re the experts in that area. We’re operating as safely as we can. They are assessing the scene for asbestos and other materials and will operate appropriately.”

“It’s our assumption that there are materials here that are not good for you,” said Whitfield. “So obviously we want to keep the residents and the responders, all the workers here, as safe as possible.”

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Credit New York State Health Department
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New York State Health Department
Page 2 of a fact sheet being handed out to Bethlehem Park residents by members of the New York State Health Department.

On Friday afternoon, members of the New York State Department of Health began going door-to-door to inform residents about the dangers they may have faced – and still could face – from smoke coming off the steel plant site.

A fact-sheet being handed out explained what may be contained in smoke, it’s effects, and what to do to avoid it. Erie County Commissioner of Health, Dr. Gale Burstein, released a statement reminding residents to follow the recommended precautions and contact their healthcare providers at the first signs of respiratory distress. “People with breathing problems like asthma, those with heart disease, children, and the elderly may be particularly sensitive,” said Burstein. She said routine syndromic surveillance by the county’s health department has to date not found an increase in respiratory ailments in the communities affected by the fire.

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Still fighting the blaze

Firefighters have been working in shifts to battle the historic blaze and hunt down the pockets of still-burning material.

“Buffalo has been supplying us with plenty of shift-working firefighters,” said Szymanski. “Our Lackawanna Fire Department has been working non-stop – calling in for overtime all the time. They haven’t been fighting the fire 24/7 per person. They have been able to go home, rest, come back, and continue fighting,” said Szymanski.

Szymanski praised the support of volunteers from day one, and noted that the only harm to firefighting personnel was a minor ankle injury to a City of Buffalo firefighter, who was taken to Erie County Medical Center for treatment.

As to the cause of the historic blaze, Szymanski said, “We’re still fighting the fire and, unfortunately, you can’t really begin the investigation until the fire scene has been secured and the investigators can get in there and identify where it started from.”

Officials could not confirm whether there was a fire suppression system in the building. City of Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield said such information would be identified in previous inspection records.

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Demolition & Structural Safety Concerns

With much of the building structure now burned down or demolished, fire and demolition crews are finding large amounts of burnt material and rubble.

“It’s a big mess back there,” said Szymanski.

Demolition crews plan to knock down the front section of the building, alleviating safety concerns for a collapse onto Route 5 and eventually opening the roadway.

“We’re planning on anticipating knocking down that front section. Hopefully we could do that [Friday] if the equipment’s right and the weather’s proper. That would hopefully allow us to maneuver for Route 5 to be opened eventually, but it won’t be today and it might not be tomorrow morning. But if we can get that down…because we have the fear of possible collapse inside of Route 5, so we’re trying to push it inside the steel plant property.”

The emergency demolition is happening in stages to allow firefighting teams access to areas they haven’t been able to reach with hoses up to this point. But Szymanski said the spot fires that are picking up in different areas of the building are not severe enough to residents out of their homes.

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-EHLu4EL8

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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