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City Too Slow to Warn of Health Dangers After Williamsburg Fire, Locals Say

By Serena Dai | February 3, 2015 2:40pm | Updated on February 3, 2015 7:04pm
 More than 70 firefighters were still at the waterfront CitiStorage site after a Saturday fire sent smoke across north Brooklyn.
Williamsburg Storage Fire
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WILLIAMSBURG — Activists are petitioning the city to step up its public-health response in the wake of industrial fires like the weekend's CitiStorage blaze, which locals fear could lead to long-term health problems for area residents.

The waterfront inferno at 5 N. 11th St., which firefighters were still battling on Tuesday, is the third large-scale fire in the area since the beginning of 2014, with a lumberyard and recycling plant burning last year.

In response, several activists have started a Change.org petition calling on Mayor Bill de Blasio to take more action in protecting the health of residents in the neighborhood, which has for years dealt with negative environmental impacts from the area's industrial past.

After Saturday's fire, residents didn't hear from the Health Department for some 15 hours, said Rita Pasarell, a Greenpoint resident and board chair for Neighbors Allied for Good Growth.

"Our area is full of these toxic legacies in the ground and the water and the air from its industrial history," she said. "There’s still a lot that we don’t know. When you have a fire like this, there’s a huge increase in the risk for exposure from smoke and the wind."

The petition calls on the mayor to take several steps, including investigating the response to past fires, coming up with a plan for emergency air monitoring, and directing city organizations to better warn neighbors of potential environmental problems.

This weekend, the Health Department recommended that locals stay indoors and keep windows closed due the amount of smoke, saying that local air quality was unlikely to impact healthy people.

But residents needed to be informed more quickly and thoroughly, said Emily Gallagher, who created the petition.

The city should tell the public what chemicals could be in the air from a fire, and how it could potentially impact them, she said. It was unclear whether the CitiStorage site contained any harmful chemicals.

"Just educate the public," Gallagher explained. "So many people don’t know even know that they’re at any risk."

The Health Department maintained on Tuesday that there is no immediate risk to locals. Air monitoring from a nearby state Department of Environmental Conservation station showed spikes in particles in the air, but they only lasted for several hours, the department said.

Smoke from structural fires is typically localized and temporary, according to the department.

"We understand that people in Williamsburg are concerned about the air quality following the fire, but there is no immediate health risk to the residents," the department said in a statement.

The mayor's office did not respond to request for comment.