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Evacuations lifted following Lackawanna fire

Posted at 3:11 PM, Nov 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-13 08:35:55-05

UPDATE noon Friday: Mayor Szymanski lifted the evacuation notice for the 300 homes in Bethlehem Park. Air testing results showed no sign of particulate matter, rendering the area safe for residents. New York State Department of Health officials will be going door to door to provide health related fact sheets to returning residents.

Demolition of the building will continue so fire crews can make entry to the site and extinguish pockets of fire. The partial demolition will also allow Route 5 to be reopened, which will likely happen over the weekend.

UPDATE 8:15 a.m. Friday: Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski tells 7 Eyewitness News reporter Thuy Lan Nguyen that while air quality levels are improving, he is not ready to lift the evacuation of the Bethlehem Park neighborhood. Demolition of the Bethlehem Steel structure will begin Friday morning because brick and steel walls on the structure are buckling. The mayor says Route 5 will not reopen until the building is demolished due to safety concerns.

UPDATE 5:30 a.m. Friday: The wind has shifted in Bethlehem Park. The Lackawanna Fire Department says the air quality levels have greatly improved, and they are in contact with the mayor. Firefighters and demolition teams have returned to the scene to continue their work.

Lackawanna Mayor Jeffrey Szymanski says he has not yet directly spoken to officials from the EPA, but he hopes to lift the evacuation order today. Szymanski says the readings for particulate matter he received from Buffalo Fire officials are very promising. His first concern is getting the fire extinguished. Demolition on parts of the building will begin today. Route 5 is still closed for the foreseeable future.

UPDATE 3:30 a.m. Friday: Firefighters suspended operations overnight due to potentially hazardous conditions related to wind and darkness. A division chief from the Buffalo Fire Department told us high winds made the interior of the building look like "Aladdin's rug." He said there was metal falling during the demolition. Firefighters intended to reassess the situation around 8 a.m.

UPDATE, 12:30 p.m. Thursday: Lackawanna's Mayor has declared a State of Emergency. All 300 homes in Bethlehem Park are being evacuated.

Mayor Geoff Syzmanski tells 7 Eyewitness News that families are being asked to relocate to friends or family's homes, if possible. If not, there are shelters at the Senior Center and the High School. No pets are allowed at either shelter.

It's unknown how long this evacuation will be in place.

Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz says the decision was made based on air tests in the area.

Szymanski said air quality tests shortly after 12 p.m. showed "higher than expected" levels of particulate matter in the air, making it dangerous for those living near the site of the fire.  Szymanski said tests later in the day showed "improved levels" but those levels were still too dangerous to allow residents to return.

ORIGINAL STORY: The Erie County Department of Health wants to make residents aware of the health impacts of the fire at the former Bethlehem Steel site in Lackawanna.

Those downwind of the fire should be aware that it is affecting them in addition to those located immediately nearby.

"Erie County residents in the area affected by this fire should avoid being exposed to the smoke as much as possible," said Gale Burstein, Erie County Comissioner of Health. "All smoke contains carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter ("PM" or soot). Individuals are advised to limit their physical exertion if exposure to high levels of smoke cannot be avoided. Individuals with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions (e.g. asthma), pregnant women, young children and the elderly may be more vulnerable to the negative health effects of smoke exposure."

The Department of Health says smoke can contain many different chemicals, but the exact types depends on what is being burned, how much oxygen is available and the burn temperature.

The Health Department warns that inhaling smoke for a short time can cause the following immediate, acute effects:

  • Smoke is irritating to the eyes, nose and throat
  • The smoke's odor may be nauseating
  • People with respiratory conditions may experience difficulty breathing
  • Carbon monoxide decreases the body's oxygen supply. This may result in headaches, reduced alertness, and can aggravate heart conditions.
  • Fine particulate matter can worsen asthma and heart conditions.

The Environmental Protection Agency is testing the particulate matter and should have the results sometime Wednesday afternoon. In addition, Erie County Hazmat has four air sampling sites in Hamburg to conduct routine air sampling in the areas downwind of the fire.

"Testing conducted for volatile organic compounds ("VOC") are showing readings of zero and oxygen levels in ambient air are normal," said Burstein. "People who live or work in the surrounding area can expect the extremely unpleasant smell from the fire to linger for a few days to weeks. The smell may be aggravating, but the odor itself poses no health risk."

Residents can expect to find a layer of soot on outdoor structures in the next few days. It is recommended to hose down or wash affected areas with a mild detergent solution to remove the soot. The Department of heath warns against touching soot or ash. If you accidently come in contact with it, wash your hands, change your clothes or shower.

There is no impact to the water supply or water quality.