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Lackawanna air quality prompting call for public hearing

Avery Schneider

Five days after the start of the massive fire at the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has posted initial air quality test results. Assemblyman Michael Kearns is pleased with the initial follow-through on promises of transparency, but is calling for a public hearing to go deeper into residents’ concerns.

From day one of the fire, Kearns’ office has been fielding phone calls from concerned residents in the City of Lackawanna and neighboring communities as far out as Orchard Park. As of late Tuesday the calls are still coming in.

“They’re just very concerned,” said Kearns.

The data posted on the State DEC website on Monday shows initial air quality results from monitors set up on Electric Avenue and Madison Avenue in the Bethlehem Park neighborhood. It covers the first three days of the blaze.

“We do know from the results that the materials – a period of time – they were hazardous. According to the air quality index they were at the highest level possible,” said Kearns. “So that’s concerning to the people. I just think they have questions that they would like to have answered above and beyond what they have been told.”

Those questions range from the basics like, ‘Can I turn my heat on?’ to whether or not the multitude of local, state, and federal agencies that were on the ground last week are sharing their data.

“I believe they would be,” said Kearns. “But the one question that we’re getting continuously is, “Is there any ground test for asbestos?’ and also, ‘Are they taking into account what’s happening with the runoff water from the fire?’”

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
A mobile air quality monitor used by agencies on the ground during the Bethlehem Steel fire.

Since many of the demolition crews that have been called to the site are licensed in asbestos abatement, Kearns wants their findings made public as well.

In addition to making sure residents are safe, Kearns believes it’s just as important to ensure first responders are being considered.

“Even though they have breathing apparatuses, if they have taken off their masks, they have been on site for the most – including the residents – the most, sometimes 30 or 40 hours.”

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
State DEC vehicles were part of the scores that responded to the site of the Bethlehem Steel fire in Lackawanna's Bethlehem Park neighborhood.

In a letter sent to State DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos on Monday, Kearns called for a public hearing to address the many outstanding concerns. Kearns said based on the information he's been given, the State DEC will continue to monitor air quality, and while he knows some of the data requires slow, careful lab testing, he wants to make sure the public’s fears are alleviated.

On Tuesday, the Erie County Health Department reminded residents residing in the fire-affected area to follow the direction of the Lackawanna Fire Department and "remain sheltered in place until the recommendation is lifted." It said, "The “Shelter in Place” status will continue until all fires are out and structural safety issues are addressed."

Due to occasional flare ups as hotspots are uncovered in the debris, the DEC has deployed particulate air quality sensors near the fire scene for the remainder of this week and firefighters are using water to keep smoke to a minimum.

The Health Department continued to encourage residents in this area to "observe caution, particularly those individuals with health conditions that may be adversely affected by even small amounts of smoke. Residents are advised to re-circulate indoor air and minimize outdoor activity."

It said people with respiratory conditions like asthma, those with heart disease, children and the elderly may be particularly sensitive to particulate matter possibly found in the smoke. "Fine particulate matter can worsen asthma and heart conditions."

"Common symptoms are irritation to the eyes, nose, airways and lungs. The Department recommended that residents contact their healthcare providers at the first sign of respiratory distress."

The Health Department said, "Emergency Services have not seen an increase in calls concerning respiratory issues since the fire began. In addition, there has not been any increase in patient visits to hospital Emergency Departments complaining of respiratory issues. ECDOH will continue to monitor the situation as appropriate."

Credit Bethlehem Steel Plant Fire Air Monitoring Results / New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
This figure is data collected on the evening of Nov 9 and morning of November 10 using portable non Reference Method instruments. The sites were on Electric Avenue.

Credit Bethlehem Steel Plant Fire Air Monitoring Results / New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
This figure is for the monitor located at the end of Madison Avenue.

Credit Bethlehem Steel Plant Fire Air Monitoring Results / New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
This figure is for the monitor located at the Electric Avenue site.

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