NB issues report of warning signs prior to major scrapyard fire

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AIM scrapyard fire
The opinion of Arcon Forensic Engineers was that the origin of the fire was likely an electrical ignition from the crushing and resultant failure of rechargeable batteries discarded within the contents of a vehicle. Photo Credit: AIM Task Force Fire Report

New Brunswick officials have released a task force report of warning signs and environmental impacts surrounding the massive industrial scrapyard fire that occurred next to Saint John Harbour in September.

The early morning fire led to a shelter-in-place order on September 14 due to air quality concerns, as scrap piles at the American Iron and Metal (AIM) property burned for nearly two days.

There are 108 residential properties within 300 metres of the scrapyard’s operations, which have been suspended since the blaze. 

“The fire at AIM had a significant impact on residents and businesses in Saint John and surrounding communities, and the task force worked diligently to investigate and find the answers to the many questions and concerns,” said Justice Minister and Attorney General Hugh Flemming, who was a member of the task force. 

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The December follow-up report to the fire found that when the scrapyard went through its environmental impact assessment (EIA) approval process in 2010 with the New Brunswick Department of Environment, the company did not identify explosions or fire as a significant risk. From 2002 to 2010 the site was primarily used for receiving, storing, sorting and loading scrap metal. However, in late 2010, the site installed an industrial metal shredder to supplement its existing operations. 

According to the report, AIM experienced at least 181 explosions and 22 fires since 2011, along with 21 WorkSafe NB incident investigations, including two fatalities. A total of 59 orders had been issued against the company, 43% of which were under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The task force report notes that while the EIA process foresaw free shred scrap piles of no more than 6 metres high, piles found at the fire reached as high as 15 metres and exceeded the limitations of the national fire code. Additionally, the taskforce found AIM non-compliant with deep pollution measures resulting in hazardous and explosive materials on site.

The report further found that AIM did not and does not have an emergency plan capable of effectively responding to such a fire or similar fire in the future.

In a review of the 2010 EIA, Dillon Consulting suggested that further environmental testing and atmospheric modelling is needed to analyze the effects of contaminants released from the fire on neighboring properties, the harbour, and other areas.

The structural engineering review recommended additional testing of the structure under the burn pile and the “Stormceptor drainage system”.

The report states that the full extent of environmental impacts from the fire is not yet known. The Stormceptor system on site was only effective at removing limited types of contaminants.

“Because of the enormous amount of water required to fight the fire, they [the Stormceptors] were completely overwhelmed by the fire event, permitting any liquid contaminants on site to be released untreated into the marine environment,” the task force report states. 

In terms of testing for metal contaminants at the site by Dillon Consulting, there were various metals found that can be harmful to human health and the environment. Those exceeded human health criteria by up to 18 times allowable levels, and ecological health criteria by up to and over 1,890 times allowable levels. These included substances such as antimony, iron, lead, arsenic, barium, boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and more. Additionally, dioxins and furans were present in six of seven soil samples and exceeded human health criteria by as high as 34.5 times allowable limits.

The fire began at approximately 1:18 a.m. Video footage of the fire shows that it turned into a major event within 15 minutes of smoke appearing. City officials noted that the capacity of their water supply and the fire department was insufficient to respond to such a fire event.

The report notes that coincidentally, a private towing vessel used for offshore oil fields was in port at the time of the fire. Its massive firefighting capabilities of more than 1,000 litres of water per second allowed it to spray some 64 million litres of water on the fire over 17 hours, far exceeding the firefighting capability of the Saint John fire department. The report suggests that the presence of the vessel “averted massive disaster.”

The opinion of Arcon Forensic Engineers was that the origin of the fire was likely an electrical ignition from the crushing and resultant failure of rechargeable batteries discarded within the contents of a vehicle.

City officials and councillors have actively been trying to have the scrapyard shut down or relocated.

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