LACKAWANNA, NY – “It's our assumption there are materials here that are not good for you,” said Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield, while surveying the remnants of the massive fire which consumed a portion of the hulking former Bethlehem Steel plant along NYS Route 5
As they set to their task among the ruins, demolition crews were noticeably attired in protective garb.
Meanwhile, nearby neighbors wonder about the potential long term impact of the fire on their environment.
"A couple of us are actually concerned about that,” said Dan Trala, who lives in the Bethlehem Park neighborhood in the shadow of the charred wreckage. “We’re not so much worried right now, we’re worried about what’s gonna happen weeks and months from now and beyond that,” he said.
Behind Trala, as he spoke to us on Beech Street, excavating equipment began moving rubble and stirring the potentially toxic spoils on a site which for most of its history was involved in heavy industry.
“We haven't heard of any long term effects that are going to be happening,” said Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski. “Keep in mind the steel plant had been pumping out --back when it was roaring in its 80 years of existence -- materials that were far more toxic than what was put out in the air with this fire."
The air, which has been steadfastly monitored by the EPA, is one thing.
However, millions of gallons of water were used to fight the fire, which continues to flow freely from the site into nearby storm sewers and eventually into the watershed.
“We are also monitoring the runoff and what discharge may be coming from that,” said Erie County’s Deouty Emergency management Commissioner Gregory Butcher. “We haven't identified anything that has caused a problem to this point."
“Erie County Sewer District 6 has been on scene since the fire started,” added Szymanski. “And we haven’t received any concerns."
According to officials there are also large amounts of asbestos in the structure, which by design wouldn't burn, and presumably remains. It’s also likely to be disturbed during the demolition and cleanup process.
“The persons doing the demolition are certified in asbestos mitigation,” said Whitfield. They are assessing the scene for asbestos and other materials and will operate appropriately."
The NY State Health Department sent a team of 10 workers into the Bethlehem Park neighborhood on Friday afternoon, to distribute literature addressing the environmental and health concerns residents might have.