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Saint John’s tension with scrapyard grows after hazardous fire leads some to shelter in place

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New Brunswick officials in Saint John issued a voluntary shelter-in-place order last week as a day-long scrapyard fire by Saint John Harbour created concerns over hazardous smoke. 

The September 14 fire at the American Iron and Metal (AIM) scrapyard and recycling facility created a thick blanket of smoke as it engulfed hundreds of scrap car parts stacked some 10 metres tall. The company, which has many locations across North America, processes waste metal into iron, steel, aluminum, nickel, copper, and alloy bails.

Dr. Rita RaaFat Gad, the acting medical officer of health for the Saint John region, told local media that air quality had been affected by the industrial fire, but it was too soon to immediately identify the mix of chemicals within the smoke. The day’s air quality data for fine particulate matter was the second-highest ever reported on the province’s charts.

Several schools and businesses in the uptown area were forced to close for the day over the air quality concerns and Saint John officials recommended wearing masks if people needed to be outside. 

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Additionally, an advisory from the Saint John Emergency Management Organization suggested that residents temporarily turn off HVAC systems to prevent smoke from entering homes. 

When the shelter-in-place order was lifted on September 15, the Department of Health and the Department of Environment and Local Government recommended that outdoor equipment or furniture exposed to the release, such as children’s play equipment and toys, should be cleaned with soap and water.  

Following the blaze, emergency personnel remained on scene at the AIM scrapyard throughout the day to deal with any localized smoldering hot spots.   

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs said in a statement that there would be a full investigation into the fire.

“As part of that investigation, AIM must submit a preliminary report within 24 hours of the event and a follow-up report within five days of the event,” said Higgs. “The investigation will take the time required and be thorough. There will be no consideration of resumption of operations until we have more information about what took place.”

Following the fire, AIM management released a statement to media indicating that it would investigate the fire. In a comment to CBC, AIM CEO Herb Black noted that the scrapyard’s surveillance cameras were hacked earlier in the year, and remained down. Black suggested the lack of surveillance may have contributed to missing the earliest stages of the blaze. 

Several groups within the Saint John region are calling for the scrapyard to be closed or relocated. Previous incidents at the scrapyard involving late night sounds of explosions have also drawn the ire of many local residents. Mayor Donna Reardon has indicated that “heavy industry and residential does not work,” but that city officials ultimately have no jurisdiction over the scrapyard’s location. AIM leases the scrapyard land from Port Saint John on federally-owned land.

“I know people are angry and want answers as to how this could happen. I want those answers as well and I am committed to sharing what we find out as soon as we are able,” Premier Higgs continued in his statement. 

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