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EVERYONE CAN understand the fears so boisterously expressed at recent public hearings in Lackawanna over the proposed tire-burning and medical waste-treatment facilities.

Generations of families and individuals, adults and children, can remember all too keenly the industrial pollution, dirt and other wastes generated by Bethlehem Steel's steel and coke operations.

That unpleasant experience helps account for public perceptions of what problems might arise from environmentally related industries that now want to locate in Lackawanna. They are interested in a small part of the 1,400-acre site largely vacated by Bethlehem when it halted its basic steelmaking operations seven years ago.

Bethlehem-induced memories certainly figured in the protests of an overflow crowd that showed up this week and then forced the postponement of a Lackawanna Planning Board hearing on the medical waste-treatment facility.

The same memories have contributed to the objections of residents at hearings on the tire-burning plant, the latest Thursday night in the city's First Ward.

But thoughtful people cannot be imprisoned by their past. Understandable as these fears may be, they do not fully conform to the realities about the proposed new facilities. There are now tough state and federal environmental laws on the books with which businesses must comply.

At least some of those who object to the plants seem to have reached a conclusion before the facts are in. In shouting down speakers at the hearings or jeering at this or that remark, they don't even want to listen to other points of view. They don't want to let voices other than their own be heard.

Regardless of what decision is ultimately made, that is not a reasonable process for reaching it.

Nor is it any way to treat the administration of Mayor Thomas E. Radich, which has turned in a creditable performance in trying to pick up the shattered municipal pieces left behind when Bethlehem departed.

Radich and others have struggled to redevelop the Bethlehem site. Logically, they have tried to attract industrial tenants.

Industrial use may be best

To believe that this site is a future safe recreational or park paradise is to cultivate delusion. Built on slag, it served for nearly a century as the location for one of the largest fully integrated steel plants in the world. The site contains patches of contamination. It is littered with industrial furniture, such as 70 miles of railroad tracks.

This is no Garden of Eden. Realistic hopes for its development focus on industrial and commercial, rather than recreational or residential, uses -- although land at the edge of Lake Erie should certainly be preserved, if at all possible, for possible trails and open space.

Even industrial businesses have not flooded City Hall offices for applications.
Now, however, Oxford Energy Co. wants to invest $100 million in a modern plant that will convert old tires into energy. Company officials say there will be no unsaleable residue, that the process does not create illegal levels of pollution and that the stack, used to disperse hot vapors, does not visibly smoke. Visitors to a similar plant in California have been impressed.

Then there is BFI Medical Waste Systems, a subsidiary of Browning-Ferris Industries, Inc. It wants to locate a facility on the Bethlehem site that would sterilize medical wastes (gowns, masks, gloves, syringes, bandages and the like) with a high-pressure steam process. The sterilized materials would then be shredded and taken to sanitary landfills.

The company assures city officials that the process involves no incineration and that the waste to be treated involves neither radioactive nor hazardous materials.

But how does anyone know if these and other claims are accurate? A fair question. City officials are not trained to reach these technical judgments. Neither are we. Nor are those at the public hearings. The surest answer is to let the experts test these company claims independently. Under New York's stringent environmental laws, that responsibility falls to the State Department of Environmental Conservation. It must review environmental claims and concerns before approving any of the permits required for such facilities to open.

The DEC must issue Oxford five permits, for example, before it can build its tire-burning plant. It must issue three permits to BFI before the medical waste-treatment operation can be undertaken.

There is also a danger, of course, in letting too many waste operations onto the Bethlehem site, and some residents raise the specter of 1,400 acres of them.

There could be advantages

The city shouldn't let that happen, and officials say they are aware of the danger and don't intend to. The two projects now proposed would take only a small part of the site and are in the center, equally distant from the lake and Route 5 and planned with landscaping that would keep them from being eyesores from either direction.

They could become the catalyst for bringing in other, cleaner businesses because the developers are willing to put in roads and utilities from the highway, infrastructure on which others could build.

If safe and appropriate, the tire and medical waste plants could return an estimated $750,000 a year to a city starved for adequate revenues. Accordingly, Lackawanna residents ought to encourage their officials to take the steps necessary to submit the proposals to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

The department's staff can, objectively and with trained eyes, test the critical questions, claims and concerns that are now raising so much concern.

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