City health officials put Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents at risk by not telling them to stay indoors all day Saturday as a major fire began, blanketing the neighborhoods in carcinogenic haze, according to environmental health activists.
The millions of paper records, still burning in the CitiStorage warehouse between N. 10th and N. 11th streets, are releasing cancer-causing chemicals, the critics charge. The city waited 14 hours from the start of the fire to issue a warning, which is unacceptable, they say.
“The city’s health department and Department of Environmental Protection response has been lackluster at best, and they have both been extremely slow in responding to this major incident,” said Mike Schade, a Greenpoint environmental activist who works days at the national advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “It is shameful. We citizens rely on governments to do their jobs and protect the people who live in the community, and they are not doing it.”
Bleached white paper contains chlorine. When that paper is burned, it releases nasty chemicals called dioxins, which the World Health Organization says cause reproductive, developmental, immune system, and hormonal problems, as well as cancer. Other pollutants that may have been released could cause respiratory problems, including asthma, and headaches, according to an online petition Schade and other activists launched on Tuesday.
“It is not the same thing as burning logs in your wood stove,” said Michael Heimbinder, a founder of HabitatMap, which builds tools for community organizing around environmental issues. “This is very toxic and the volume of toxic air emissions is substantial. That is not safe air to breathe.”
The petition demands that the city perform an investigation into the response, create a response plan for big fires in the future, develop a system for air monitoring during such fires, and release all air-quality data related to this one.
Schade said he was horrified to hear that the city waited all day once the fire starting burning to send out a brief message urging residents in the area to stay inside with their windows closed.
“Families with kids are not out at 10 o’clock at night, but they were all that day. That is when they needed to know,” he said.
The health department’s message to residents downplayed the possible health risks. The full message reads:
“The health department recommends that residents either downwind or in the vicinity of the fire limit exposure by staying indoors and keeping their windows closed. Local air quality has been affected but is not likely to cause significant health problems for healthy people. People who are vulnerable, like seniors, children and people with respiratory conditions, may experience some difficulty breathing, but anyone in the immediate area who experiences shortness of breath or chest pains should seek medical attention. If people do not notice smoke, they do not need to take special precautions. The odor may be present long after worrisome levels of smoke abate.”
One local said that the scene this week reminds him of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I worked at 9-11 at ground zero, helping out the Red Cross,” said Jonathan Burkan, who lives at Kent Avenue and N. Eighth Street. “That was the last time I have seen such smoke and so many fire trucks.”
Burkan said he is considering moving his family out temporarily to get away from the acrid smoke.
“If it is bad enough, I am going to a hotel for a few days,” he said. “I have two small kids to think about.”
Firefighters have been on the scene since early Saturday morning and fire officials predict the paper would smolder at least through this weekend. The FDNY said firefighters responded to a call at about 5:30 am on Saturday, put out a small fire at CitiStorage, and left. At 6:28 am, firefighters got the call about a much larger fire at the same facility, officials said. Since then, several hundred firefighters from more than 40 companies have taken turns battling the blaze from the ground and from boats on the East River.
Fire Department officials declined to say how the two fires are related, or to comment on the possibility that firefighters failed to put out the initial fire, or that both were deliberately set.
The causes of the both fires are still under investigation by fire marshals, FDNY spokesman Frank Dwyer said.
The warehouse, which now has sections of collapsed roof and has been reduced to piles of rubble in other parts, sits on a valuable strip of waterfront land in Williamsburg where property values have been hovering at about $400 per buildable square foot, according to commercial real estate broker Chris Havens. At that rate, zoning puts the value of the property at $71.5 million. It is desirable to developers, fire or no, Havens said.
“Anyone who is going to buy this land is going to build something else on it and not keep it as a storage facility,” Havens said. “So the fire is irrelevant to the value of the land.”
Schade believes that the CitiStorage lot is now toxic enough to qualify as a government-designated brownfield or Superfund cleanup site.
A number listed for CitiStorage rang and rang, never going to voicemail during repeated calls. Private security guards who said they worked for the building owner forced our photographer off of a neighboring street, with the cooperation of NYPD officers.