Putting out, and cleaning up from, the massive blaze that tore through the former Bethlehem Steel site last week is an extensive task.
It will take a considerable amount of time to finish that work and to figure out what caused the fire.
What isn’t clear is how much this response will cost – and precisely who will pay for it.
Officials representing the cities of Lackawanna and Buffalo and companies that owned or leased space in the cavernous former steel mill said it’s too soon to know who will pay for the full cost of battling the conflagration, demolishing the fire-ravaged complex, clearing the site and reimbursing property owners for their losses.
Lackawanna city officials will meet Monday to discuss a host of fire-related issues, including expenses. The Buffalo Fire Department, which responded at the request of Lackawanna’s department once the fire’s size and scope became apparent, still is reviewing its costs from the incident, a city spokesman said Sunday.
And the company that owns the property, Great Lakes Industrial Development, is insured for damages from a fire, but has not begun to estimate the size of its losses.
“From a financial standpoint, it’ll be a devastating loss,” said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for the owners, “but we don’t yet know the full extent.”
As smoke billowed from spot fires Sunday at the former steel mill property in Lackawanna, fire marshals from the Buffalo Fire Department and officials from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives continued their probe into what caused the destructive fire.
Crews from the Lackawanna Fire Department and a private demolition company also were there to help in tamping down the smoldering fires and in removing debris to assist the investigators, said Lackawanna Fire Chief Ralph Galanti.
Across the street, a steady stream of people arrived on Lincoln Avenue, off of Route 5, around noontime Sunday to see for themselves the damage wrought by the fire.
Under bright sunshine, they took pictures of what remained of the towering steel frame and of piles of twisted metal and rubble. A stiff wind carried an acrid odor that left a bitter taste with some onlookers.
“I just remember all the men walking to work with their lunch boxes,” said Roz Irwin, a Derby resident who grew up in the Bethlehem Park neighborhood and whose father and uncles worked at the plant.
Her husband, Bill, wondered if the site could be reborn after the fire, and who would pay for it. “Depends how much money they want to sink into it, that’s all. It’s just a money pit,” he said.
Storage business engulfed
Every day since the fire, Dr. Robert Hornberger has visited the site to try to access to a fireproof safe that holds the contracts and other records for his business, Dr. Bob’s Storage, located in the former Bethlehem Steel cold mill along Route 5. Emergency crews continue to tell him it’s not safe to enter.
His company offers winter storage to cars, mobile homes, boats and personal watercrafts, and has been in that building for the past two years. He got a call from a friend at about 7:10 a.m. Wednesday that another part of the 1 million-square-foot complex was on fire, and he got there within 10 minutes.
Hornberger watched the fire progress for two hours. “It was painful,” he said.
A thick, steel wall separated the section of the structure where the fire began from the section where his company stored about 90 vehicles. But he said he thinks a burning ember, or embers, floated down a smoke stack into his part of the building and spread the fire.
Hornberger said he’s devastated for his clients, who took their vehicles to the building for storage as recently as the day before the fire. The owners, as part of their contracts, must agree in writing that they carry insurance or they must waive liability.
“There’s people with wooden boats that were passed down in their families, old Corvettes,” he said, but the most important thing is no one was seriously hurt or killed in the fire.
Hornberger said he will work to reimburse the vehicle owners as much of their rental payments for this season as possible. An optometrist who also owns a detailing business, Hornberger said he doesn’t know if he will restart this company after he resolves everything related to the fire.
Costs, timeline unknown
It will take Lackawanna and the property owner a long time to clean up from the fire. To give a sense of the scale of the task, the fire-damaged structure is the size of six football fields.
Galanti, the Lackawanna fire chief, said crews are working under an emergency demolition order. City officials on Monday will discuss when work at the site will shift to a regular demolition. “It’s under control, and there is still a little active burning,” Galanti said.
Lackawanna city officials also will talk about the cost of responding to the fire and to cleaning up the fire, Galanti said. He said it was too soon to say whether the city could apply for state or federal reimbursement for some of its costs.
Buffalo fire officials are still tallying the costs for responding to the fire at Lackawanna’s request, said Michael J. DeGeorge, a spokesman for Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. It’s not known whether Lackawanna could reimburse Buffalo for expenses.
Great Lakes Industrial Development is looking forward to gaining access to the building to find out how much of the structure, if any, can be preserved, said Pantano.
He said the owners haven’t begun to think about what they’ll do with the site, which they bought in 2010.
“The only thing we know for sure is we have a long road ahead of us to figure out what comes next,” Pantano said.
Residents dismiss concerns
Neighbors in the shadow of the long-shuttered plant say the fire doesn’t make them feel any less safe about their homes.
Lucille Butts, a retired community educator who lives on Pine Street, was wearing a surgical mask over her mouth and nose as she walked along Walnut Street. She was coming back from a visit to the site.
“I wanted to take some pictures for history’s sake,” Butts said. She said she bought an air purifier for her home, but otherwise isn’t too worried.
As for the site clean-up and reuse, Butts said, “Obviously this is not a short-term thing.”
Shirley Pauley was visiting her mother, who has lived in the Bethlehem Park neighborhood for 40 years. Her boyfriend’s mother lives there, too.
Pauley can remember when the plant was running and particulates came out of the stacks that would coat the windows and the siding on the houses with an orange film. That had to be just as bad, or worse, than whatever is coming out of the plant from the fire, she said.
Or, holding her pack of cigarettes, she asked, “Is what’s in the steel plant any worse than what’s in these?”
Hank Banas has lived on Walnut Street for almost 40 years. He said he’d like to see a recreational use considered for the site once cleanup is completed, as he said was previously contemplated for that parcel.
As for the cost of the cleanup, he said he’d like to see the property owner bear more of the responsibility.
“Why should the taxpayers always pay?” Banas said.