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Lackawanna residents still have questions after meeting with environmental officials

Lackawanna residents met Monday night with state officials about the environmental aftermath of the massive fire on the old Bethlehem Steel grounds. Citizens said they were not getting the whole story and state officials said they did not know everything.
The most impacted neighborhood is Bethlehem Park, right across the street from the fire. It has been filled for days with smoke, debris and fumes from the materials that burned.

Mayor Geoff Szymanski ordered an evacuation and some did leave. Some of those at the meeting say they have no intention of going back until someone does something about the fumes and odors that remain in the community and inside their homes.

State officials said residents should clean everything and potentially stay with relatives for a while. Amy said she has no plan for her six-month-old son to visit his grandmother in Bethlehem Park.
"We did not go anywhere near Lackawanna or the Southtowns for a week when that fire was burning," she said. "We stayed away, because one smell of the air and I was out of there. It was just horrendous. The smell was terrible."

Also at the meeting were some Lackawanna firefighters, including Jason Durdyke, who said he wants to know what he breathed.

"We're concerned. We got preliminary reports done from I forget which agency, but our chief had a meeting with us and I guess we're waiting for information, just like everybody else," he said.

Firefighters are very conscious of the risks of these blazes, especially those that generate deadly gases like the cyanide state air monitors found in the fire area. Surdyke said they take precautions by wearing gear into a burning building.

"We just got a grant to wash all our equipment," he said. "We have a big washer and dryer, commercial style. So we're taking precautions just like every other house fire, but obviously this was a lot bigger."

Firefighters leaving the fire were washed down in their gear on site by special hazmat showers to reduce exposure to toxins, although they could smell them very clearly.

Speakers and those in attendance said state officials do not understand that many of the more than 300 affected homes are occupied by people without relatives to stay with, the money to perform the elaborate cleaning suggested, belief in what they are being told to do, or perhaps health insurance to cover a visit to the doctor.

Tony Pagliei worked at Bethlehem Steel for 37 years and said the issue is not just what was stored in the buildings that burned.
"All the oil from the rolls that rolled the steel, the backups that we built, I built, as a matter of fact. We drained the oil in a cleaning area and all that stuff went into the ground," he said. "That's probably why you're getting a lot of the smell, because of all the oil burning."

Pagliei wanted to know if this was yet another Love Canal. State health officials downplayed that possibility because exposure was short term.

More data is on the way and the Environmental Protection Agency is apparently planning some soil testing, but did not have anyone at the meeting.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.