Amesbury Housing Authority member concerned about alleged fire hazard

BRYAN EATON/Staff photoNorman Bellavance, an Amesbury Housing Authority member, is upset about flammable liquids stored at Heritage Towers, where he lives. 

AMESBURY — A member of the Housing Authority is concerned about what he says is a fire hazard at Heritage Towers and calling for the resignation of the authority chairman and executive director, but the fire chief says the agency is in the clear.

Norman Bellavance was elected to a four-year seat in November and said he intends to improve the safety of the residents who live at the three Amesbury Housing Authority properties — Powow Villa, Heritage Vale and Heritage Towers.

Bellavance is also a resident of Heritage Towers on Main Street and said the Housing Authority had been keeping maintenance equipment and gasoline in a storage area on the building's ground-level floor for many years.

"I discovered this a long time ago," Bellavance said. "There is a storage space where they store snowblowers, leaf blowers, and gasoline and flammable materials in the basement. They are supposed to be outside. There are two elevator shafts there and there are nine floors. If the fumes go up through there, all somebody has got to do is throw on a light switch and there will be an explosion.

"You ever hear of a Molotov cocktail?" he said. "That is waiting to happen."

Authority Chairman Ralph Noon disagreed with Bellavance's claim, saying, "We are concerned about our residents and we also see their safety as the first goal in our lives. We are up to snuff on everything."

Bellavance said he spoke with Deputy Fire Chief Jim Nolan, who told him in January the Housing Authority could store up to 14 gallons of gasoline in the building.

Bellavance also said the gasoline and flammable materials were moved to a separate but connected storage area on the other side of the building after his conversation with Nolan.

Fire Chief Ken Berkenbush confirmed the equipment and gasoline were moved and still remain indoors, but said the building and the storage area are all up to code.

“This is actually one room away from the room where the elevator shaft is at," Berkenbush said.

He said Building Inspector Dennis Nadeau inspected the building and determined that Heritage Towers is not a fire hazard.

"This was determined to be a two-hour fire-rated structure, followed by another two-hour fire-rated structure which is near the elevator shaft," Berkenbush said. "That means we looked at the walls and the doors themselves and that is all rated. So that small enclosure there is rated for two hours that a fire will not penetrate through that wall, nor the ceiling, nor the floor or anything else and go anywhere. So you could give it two hours for a fire to run."

Berkenbush also said the storage structure has been in use since before he arrived on the job in 2015 and no problems have arisen since then.

"We have worked with the Housing Authority and they have even gone above and beyond what the fire code requires," Berkenbush said.

Bellavance was not satisfied with Berkenbush's comments.

“I’m not interested in the code, I’m interested in the people whose lives have been put in jeopardy,” Bellavance said. “They are supposed to be studying it, but I'm concerned that they're not admitting there is a problem. If this is happening in one building, it could be happening somewhere else. If this was somebody's parents or son or daughter living here, would they want this to exist?"

Bellavance said he has also brought the matter to the attention of fellow Housing Authority members, including Noon, as well as Executive Director Michelle Bibeau but had yet to see a satisfying conclusion to the situation. Because of that, he's calling for their resignations.

Noon and Bibeau said they will stand by the Fire Department's assessment of the situation.

"I have been on this board I think for 10 years now," Noon said. "We do everything by the letter of the law, as requested. Mr. Bellavance might not like the answers he is receiving and he is acting independently of the board when you are supposed to work as a board member, collectively. I don't know what we can do to make him happy."

Bellavance said his concern stretches far beyond the city and he would like to see his message go directly to Gov. Charlie Baker.

"My main concern is that maybe this is going on throughout the state," Bellavance said. "If it is, that is a catastrophe. Something is going to happen."

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.

Editor's note: This story updates an incorrect reference to the city of Amesbury in a previous version.

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