Residents near former steel plant file a class action lawsuit after they experience post-fire health issues.
More than thirty people who lived near what was once the Bethlehem Steel factory have joined a class action lawsuit seeking damages after the four-day fire in 2016, plaintiffs claim, caused long-lasting turmoil in their lives. The lawsuit has been filed against Great Lakes Industrial Development LLC, which purchased the Bethlehem Steel building years ago, and Great Lakes’ tenant, Industrial Materials Recycling LLC.
The lead plaintiff, Ashley Torres, said her newborn child, Penelope, suffered respiratory issues as a result of the blaze while another child later died of brain cancer in 2019. The lawsuit doesn’t directly link the death of Amelia Torres to the fire but contends the event perpetuated “environmental threats that caused the death of Torres’ mother, Earlene Wozniak,” who lived with them. She died from throat cancer in 2019. Torres and her children experienced “wheezing, heart palpitations and watery eyes” while trying to evacuate their home, Ashley said.
“By the time Torres was able to relocate to the Town of Collins, 102 Pine St. had lost about $30,000 in value,” the lawsuit states, listing damages many others in the area also reported to attorney Jeanne M. Vinal, who is an Erie County legislator. Some of the damages in the lawsuit are meant to cover property repair expenses not covered by insurance claims.
The lawsuit blames the defendants for not having a fire suppression system. However, a “sprinkler system was not required because Great Lakes had made no changes to the building,” Lackawanna Fire Commissioner Ralph Galanti said when the incident occurred. The building had passed inspection two years earlier in 2014.
“Some people had injuries including cancers and other injuries, acute kinds of injuries. Some people had their siding melted off; their shingles blown off,” said Vinal. “The building was built way before there were any building codes, so the building codes may not have required them by law to do something, but they still need to be reasonably prudent for the safety of others and here they didn’t have any fire suppressants. I don’t think that it would have cost them that much to do it, and they chose not to do it.”
In court documents filed for another case, Great Lakes indicated the company was itself victimized by the fire. In 2016, the firm told the state Health Department and the Department of Environmental Conservation it would “help affected residents with cleanup costs and would help analyze the soot and ash.”
Even prior to the fire, it seems the site has almost cursed to be linked to respiratory issues and certain cancers. Those affiliated with the plant have filed asbestos-related claimed for years after developing significant lung problems. Thousands of Bethlehem steel retirees have sought compensation under a federal program for former employees of the Department of Energy and its contractors, and local congressional representatives have long called for an expansion of the timeframe allowable by the program. It’s hard to say whether there were any asbestos concerns when the fire broke out and plant materials were disbursed into the air.