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Activists: Smoke from Williamsburg fire is cancer-causing

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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.

Reach reporter Danielle Furfaro at dfurfaro@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her at twitter.com/DanielleFurfaro.
Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018: Information about the just-launched petition to overhaul the city's major-fire response protocol added.
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Reasonable discourse

Mike from Williamsburg says:
It was about 20 degrees on Saturday. How could people think of keeping their windows closed without a statement from the city?
Feb. 3, 2015, 8:46 am
Mel says:
When they catch the arsonist that started the blaze(s) a class action suit should be brought against the perpetrator by the community for the health risks that we've been intentionally exposed to.
Who will the defendants wind up being? Because there's not one single party involved that didn't have plenty to gain by it burning to the ground, except for the citizenry.
Feb. 3, 2015, 9:25 am
Sage Pearson from V'Burg says:
There has been a lot of lies and cover ups about the business and other concerns at that site for a long time. Safety issues and shady business practices will be exposed. A huge exposure is that the property was Fireproof, Waterproof and Climate Controlled. It has been always been a health risk to the community. They soecialize in cover up.They have mentioned all of the hospitals and law firms that maybe impacted but no one has mentioned that all NYS Regents are stored there as well. This is coming from a company insider.
Feb. 3, 2015, 10:13 am
Pablo from Williamsburg says:
So now we need the authorities to give us instructions on the obvious?
Feb. 3, 2015, 10:14 am
Not Goish from Prospect Heights says:
Wahhhhhhhhh. Wahhhhhhh. Live in a bubble.
Feb. 3, 2015, 10:42 am
ty from pps says:
For the future....

If there is a building burning, try not to breathe the smoke for a long time.

Does that work? I swear, people are just dumb. There are legitimate things that are really big issues concerning this storage facility, its management and its contents. "The government didn't tell me not to breathe smoke" is NOT one of these legitimate things.
Feb. 3, 2015, 12:05 pm
Rufus Leaking from BH says:
But the smoke in a hookah lounge is harmless.
Feb. 3, 2015, 2:01 pm
K. from ArKady says:
A gigantic fire on top of a superfund site is nothing to be afraid of.
Feb. 3, 2015, 2:15 pm
John from BH says:
All smoke is carcinogenic.
Feb. 3, 2015, 4:08 pm
SB from W-Burg says:
For the thousands of homes downwind of the fire, simply not breathing the smoke in was not an option. So advice like, "If there is a building burning, try not to breathe the smoke for a long time." is pretty pointless. More than 1000 people were diagnosed with cancer related to the dust and debris from 9-11... every resident was thinking about that on Saturday. With no where else to go and a living room slowly filling up with the smell of burning paper, what are residents to do?

I hope it's all just pointless worry, but there's no way know that right now .
Feb. 3, 2015, 4:26 pm
John Wasserman from Prospect Heights says:
Pardon me, but I find the following statement to be quite alarming:
“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.”
This could mean one of three things, and for the love of all that is holy I hope that it is not the "bad" one.
Pardon the interruption.
Feb. 3, 2015, 4:37 pm
CB from NA says:
Sorry, Michael Heimbinder, you're wrong!!! A burning building is not the same as burning logs in a fireplace! A fireplace can be upgraded to an EPA-certified insert. EPA-certified stoves are cleaner burning. A burning building is WAY more toxic. Paints, chemicals, plastics all burning/smoldering in a building fire. Fireplaces have none of that! Get your facts straight!
Feb. 4, 2015, 12:41 pm
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
Pay attention to what Mr. Heimbinder actually said and what Furfaro reported. He did not say a burning building is the same as burning logs in a fireplace. Read over the article again.
Feb. 4, 2015, 12:59 pm
ty from pps says:
I'll help.

“It is not the same thing as burning logs in your wood stove,” said Michael Heimbinder....
Feb. 4, 2015, 3:11 pm
Brad from Park Slope says:
And ty is looking for a new self-important snark record, it seems...
Feb. 5, 2015, 12:50 pm

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