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Fire at EPA cleanup site destroys building

The Lawrence Aviation property in Port Jefferson Station,

The Lawrence Aviation property in Port Jefferson Station, a toxic waste site, drew firefighters to put out a blaze on Sunday night (Sept. 4, 2011) Credit: Photo by DENNIS C.WHITTAM

A weekend fire destroyed an abandoned office building at a notorious federal Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station, officials said Monday.

No one was injured in the blaze Sunday night at the sprawling Lawrence Aviation Industries manufacturing complex. It did not threaten residents in surrounding communities, said a spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees cleanup there.

Town of Brookhaven fire marshals and the Suffolk County arson squad are investigating the cause of the fire, officials said.

More than 50 firefighters from seven departments battled the blaze from about 9 p.m. Sunday night until 2:30 a.m. Monday, said Dennis Whittam, a spokesman for the Terryville Fire Department.

"You couldn't even tell it was a building," he said. "It was just one ball of flame."

A different building once used to house workers at the 126-acre complex on Sheep Pasture Road burned just two weeks ago, said Terryville Fire Department Chief William Wesley, who added that the complex has become an area of concern for the department.

The former titanium mill that was the source of the chemicals Lawrence Aviation illegally stored and spilled was about 1,000 feet away from Sunday night's fire, Whittam said -- far enough that firefighters needed no special equipment.

Lawrence Aviation began making parts for airplanes in 1959, employing hundreds. Later, Whittam said, it made parts for golf clubs.

Since 2000, when the complex was declared a Superfund site, EPA investigators identified a mile-long underground plume of solvents emanating from the mill. Some of those chemicals, including a potential carcinogen known as trichloroethylene, were found in residential wells.

Thousands of drums containing sludge and chemical waste have been carted away from the site in the last two decades, and in 1999, 16,000 tons of contaminated soil were removed.

Houses above the plume have been connected to public water, and in August the EPA unveiled a water treatment plant intended to filter groundwater fouled by the chemical plume.

Company owner Gerald Cohen pleaded guilty in 2008 to violating federal environmental laws and was sentenced to serve a year and a day, a term he began earlier this year.

EPA officials said the fire cut off power to a water-processing facility on the complex's grounds, and that they were working to find an alternative power source.

Firefighters from Port Jefferson, Setauket, Mount Sinai, Coram and Selden were on the scene Sunday night. Members of the Port Jefferson Volunteer Ambulance Company treated one firefighter for heat exhaustion.

Firefighters returned to the scene Monday morning with a bulldozer and a ladder truck to rake and douse still-smoldering wreckage. The wreckage field included barely recognizable office furniture and filing cabinets that Wesley said contained pay stubs from the 1970s.

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