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Cleanup After a Fire: Protective Suits and Fear of Hazards


The New York Times on July 25, 1999

A July 7 fire at a New York City Transit electrical substation on Essex Street took hours to extinguish, disrupted subway service, closed streets and disrupted power for days. But that was only the beginning of worries for residents, who have watched for two weeks as workers, some wearing protective suits, have carted debris out of the building.

The residents say they fear that the workers may be removing asbestos from the substation, which is between Houston and Stanton Streets. They also fear that people might have been exposed to hazardous materials, either during the fire, which produced thick, billowing black smoke, or during the cleanup.

The substation did have asbestos in the basement, said a New York City Transit spokesman, Albert O'Leary. But Mr. O'Leary said that it was safely contained and would be removed over the next four to six months. That work has not started, he said.

"After a fire, there's a great deal of material to be removed," he said. "And just because men are carrying out debris doesn't mean it's hazardous." He added that any worker going into the basement was required to wear a protective suit.

Asbestos may not be the only problem at the site. After the fire, the city's Department of Environmental Protection ordered Con Edison, which owns three of the seven transformers, to clean PCB's from the basement, said a department spokesman, Charles Sturcken. He said, however, that samples taken outside on the day of the fire and the day after showed no sign that the toxins had escaped.

But Martha Liipfert, a Con Ed spokeswoman, said she knew nothing about any PCB tests. She said the company was waiting for New York City Transit to say the basement was safe for its workers.

On Thursday afternoon, Clayton Patterson, a photographer who lives next door to the substation, and Marcia Lemmon, of Ludlow Street, sat in Mr. Patterson's office looking at photographs he had taken that showed men loading large plastic bags labeled "Danger" into a van.

Across the street at Public School 20, John Zamot, a substitute teacher, said he had been feeling lightheaded and had scheduled a checkup after a worker had warned him about hazardous materials inside the substation. The principal, Dr. Leonard Golubchick, said he was concerned and had contacted city and state officials.

On Thursday night, Carol Sieli, who lives at Essex and Stanton Streets, stood near the substation and watched workers studying a blueprint. She complained that residents were being kept in the dark. "The workers say there isn't any danger," Ms. Sieli said. "But if there's nothing wrong, why have these people been wearing white suits?"