At a town hall meeting last night, the health department admitted it took too long to issue warnings in the wake of the massive Williamsburg warehouse fire; meanwhile, the fire department said it might take as long as a month to return the site to safety.
Daniel Kass, the health department’s Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Health, acknowledged that the agency could have warned neighbors about elevated levels of air pollution sooner than it did, late in the day of the early-morning fire.
“I think we can say the air quality had been compromised earlier than that and it would have been better to get an advisory out earlier,” Kass told local residents gathered in the community room at Bushwick Inlet Park.
But he assured them that air quality had been monitored in the days following the Jan. 31 blaze. It was deemed normal the next day, and there hasn’t been an uptick in emergency room visits for respiratory disease, Kass reported.
“I want to acknowledge that the air was unhealthful for a day,” Kass said, but he claimed that spike was no different than “the sorts of events that happen over the course of the year all over the city” due to normal, non-fire-related waves of pollution.
Though some had expressed concerns that bleached paper burned in the fire might release dangerous levels of dioxin, Kass insisted otherwise: “I don’t think it’s something we have to be concerned about in this fire. Again, the effects are transient — the effects are from products that did not have significant levels of dioxin.”
The FDNY was among the other city agencies invited to the meeting by City Council member Stephen Levin. Deputy Chief Wayne Cartwright explained that the department, working with the Office of Emergency Management, would continue to monitor pockets of fire that are still smoldering throughout the building as it’s demolished. “As material is taken from the building the fire department is checking it for any possible person that may have been inside the building,” he added. “At this time there have not been any reports of someone inside.”
“We’re making progress,” Cartwright assured agitated community members. “Unfortunately, we’re being told by the contractors that it will be an extended operation to take the building down to the foundation level.” Cartwright hoped the lot at Kent Avenue and North 11th Street would be “returned to a safe site” in three to four weeks.
Among the citizens to voice their concerns, Emily Gallagher, of the Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, addressed a general worry about the string of industrial fires that have happened in North Brooklyn during the past five years. As part of a coalition that has written a petition for transparency, particularly concerning reports conducted by the Health Department, Gallagher listed six specific asks including the “release of any and all environmental sampling data from the three recent fires in North Brooklyn, and making them accessible to all members of the community.”
Leaving room for further discussion, Kass immediately adressed Gallagher by saying they should follow up on this meeting by collectively thinking through a response. But, he added, some progress has already been made: “We have already revisited the protocol to make sure that early on in the fire, with the fire and OEM, that an advisory will go out earlier,” Kass said.