State environmental and health officials got an earful Monday from residents near the Bethlehem Steel plant fire who demanded more meaningful air quality testing, as well as ground and water testing, as they worry about short and long-term health effects from the blaze that sent a huge black plume of smoke into the air.
Nearly 300 residents crammed into the Lackawanna Senior Center Monday night before a City Council meeting for what turned into a free-for-all exchange between homeowners and government officials. At times, residents' concerns and frustrations boiled over to the point where a state Health Department doctor and a regional environmental air pollution control engineer were continually interrupted while giving presentations.
"My question is, is this going to be another Love Canal?" said Tony Pagliei, a retired 37-year Bethlehem Steel worker who lives on Pine Street.
[Gallery: Wreckage from the Bethlehem Steel fire]
State officials sought to dispel that fear. But many residents said their homes reek of noxious odors even after they have been allowed to move back into them, and they are worried about whether contaminants that burned in the fire will make them ill in the future.
"We just want to know what was in that fire," said Andrea Haxton, a former city councilwoman who lives in the 330-home Bethlehem Park neighborhood near the steel mill. "What was in that thick black smoke. We thought it was the end of the world."
The DEC has removed all but one of its air quality monitors – the one on Madison Avenue is expected to be removed any day – and officials believe the air quality is safe, said Al Carlacci, DEC regional air pollution control engineer. "It's the same as what we're measuring anywhere in the city of Buffalo," he said after the meeting. "There was nothing unique about this fire than any other commercial fire. It was typical."
And yet, Carlacci – who was verbally heckled by a few residents – later said he does not blame the public for being upset. "They're not overreacting," he said.
Many residents who came to the forum said they left with few answers and did not learn anything new about the air quality than what was released last week. "I don't really feel I know any more than when I came," said Trudy Then, of Pine Street.
Many people lamented that it isn't only a health concern for Lackawanna residents, but also other Southtowns communities like Hamburg, Eden and Orchard Park, where the smoke could be seen for miles when the fire erupted Nov. 9.
The air quality data is incomplete in the sense that nothing has been released from the Environmental Protection Agency monitoring, officials said. "We do not know the data from EPA and the EPA and DEC data is not corroborated, " said State Assemblyman Michael P. Kearns.
"We cannot give the complete picture until we get data from the EPA."
Kearns and others vowed to set up an additional meeting with residents to address ongoing health concerns and environmental issues.
"My biggest concern is the contaminants – in my bedroom, my bed, my sofa," one woman said. "I want to know every darn chemical ... We want our homes filled with good quality air."
The DEC does not do ground sampling, but that was one of the biggest concerns on people's minds Monday night.
Some described their homes as black inside from the fire's soot residue, and said the odors are horrible – inside and outside their homes. Many complained of headaches, burning eyes and breathing complications – most of which a state Health Department doctor said are typical short-term side effects that should be going away.
Dr. Gregory Young, assistant commissioner of the state Health Department's western region, said the good news was that there were no acids released because of the blaze. "The good news was there were no inorganic acids," he said. "There's been stuff in this community for a long time, and we're fortunate there were no inorganic acids from this fire."
Young also said the air particulate numbers were down to baseline levels by the third day of the fire as it burned down. He also said his team was amazed there was not a bump up in the particulate matter levels as demolition began, but firefighters' efforts to hose down the area with water helped keep that in check.
One Lincoln Avenue woman loudly asked why DEC officials did not put air sampling canisters in the neighborhood located the closest to the steel plant. "Why didn't you? Why didn't you?" she asked Carlacci. "We know all of our health and our children's health is in danger."
Health experts said residents will smell bad odors from the fire for quite some time. "The fact you can smell it, doesn't mean it'll necessarily harm you," Young said. "There is no data that a single bad exposure causes (cancer). You need multiple exposures."
Residents were encouraged to clean their homes thoroughly with soap and water, change furnace filters and have professional carpet cleaning done in their homes.
"We tried to assist as best we could," Carlacci said. "It's a difficult thing to chase a fire around. We did the best we could."
As some hounded officials for not sharing even more data, Young stressed that the officials are being transparent. "It isn't that we don't care. We do care. We live here, too," h e said. "I saw no evidence of a cover-up. No one is trying to hold anything back."
In the end, many residents also are asking the air inside their homes be tested, as well as the soil.
"This isn't the end. Certainly we want to hear all these points. We're going to be back and address some more issues I do not have the answer for," said Rich Bennett, a DEC representative. "I appreciate how serious this is."