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Editorial: Neighbors have legitimate concerns over health effects of Bethlehem fire

It is easy to empathize with residents living near the former Bethlehem Steel plant. The facility burned furiously for days, sending plumes of smoke billowing into the air. Residents were alarmed when they returned to their homes to find them stinking of smoke with soot everywhere.

They are rightly concerned about what is in the air they’re breathing and the soot they’re cleaning up.

“My question is, is this going to be another Love Canal?” asked Tony Pagliei, a retired 37-year Bethlehem Steel worker who lives on Pine Street.

Carcinogenic benzene floated in the air at the Bocce Courts on Madison Avenue in Lackawanna in the aftermath of the Nov. 9 fire. The air contained 180 times more benzene than normal. New York State environmental and health officials said it was what could be expected near a large industrial fire.

But there was more: elevated levels of the suspected carcinogens vinyl chloride, butadiene and styrene, along with higher levels of toluene. Air monitoring devices were set in neighborhoods for a time and officials announced their belief that the air quality is safe.

But that hardly calmed the nerves of residents like Pine Street’s Amy Claroni: “I’d like to know about the air quality in my house,” she said. “I love my lungs. I don’t want to take a chance.”

Who could blame her? Claroni and her neighbors had to deal with the damage the fire caused to their homes. News articles have given voice to residents who spoke of “steam cleaning rugs, scrubbing interior walls and power washing anything outdoors – even the lawn.” The News photo staff has brilliantly illustrated the fire and its aftermath.

To its credit, Great Lakes Industrial Development, owner of the property, is taking responsibility for the hardship caused by the fire. The company will pay for some cleanup and analysis of the soot. It will notify affected homeowners and has set up a hotline – 207-8685 – for residents to report cleanup claims.

Lackawanna residents tend to be among the working class. Some have lived there for generations, growing up in the shadow of the steel plant. Back then, the smoke belching from furnaces signaled thousands of good jobs. Now the smoke is cause for worry.

Local and state officials must continue doing the best they can to address residents’ concerns about their health and their property. They lived through a nightmare. Recovering from it should not be another nightmare.

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