Investigations are underway into what caused an all-day fire Thursday at a harbourfront scrapyard in Saint John, but whatever triggered it.
But investigators and industry leaders across North America acknowledge fire has become an increasingly common problem in the scrap metal business.
A fire at the American Iron and Metal recycling plant sent hazardous smoke over Saint John for more than a day and was still smouldering Friday afternoon.
Earlier this year, the United States National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on its investigation into a major scrap metal barge fire in Delaware Bay off the coast of New Jersey in 2022.
The board was unable to name an exact cause but noted it was not an isolated incident.
"Although scrap metal cargo is typically nonhazardous and poses a low fire risk, there have been several recent fires," it wrote in its investigation report released this past April.
The board listed a number of potential ignition sources that can trigger a scrap metal fire, including "a spark between metal objects" or residual amounts of "flammable liquids" seeping out of junked cars.
Those sometimes ignite and spread to what the industry calls "fluff" material mixed up in the metal, such as car-seat upholstery, and rubber and plastic trim that clings to vehicles and appliances prior to shredding.
More lithium-ion batteries raise danger
"Even with supplier acceptance agreements and quality assurance personnel visually inspecting scrap metal, metallic and nonmetallic hazardous materials often are present within shoreside scrap metal piles," the safety board wrote.
But those hazards have long been present in the industry and the safety board noted that a potentially more serious danger — discarded lithium-ion batteries — have been entering the metal waste stream in growing numbers and raising the danger of ignition.
Lithium-ion batteries are in wide use in a variety of consumer products from smartphones and laptops, to scooters and hoverboards.
They can store more energy than traditional batteries at a fraction of the size but have been known to catch fire and even explode if they are damaged or poorly manufactured or handled.
Because of the risk of fire they pose, loose lithium-ion batteries are not permitted in checked luggage on commercial airlines.
A barge loaded with scrap metal erupted in flames in Delaware Bay in New Jersey in May 23, 2022. A report into the incident highlighted the growing danger of scrap metal fires being caused by lithium-ion batteries (U.S. Coast Guard)
In January 2022 a major scrap metal fire at a recycling operation at the port in Newark, N.J., sent clouds of pungent smoke into local neighbourhoods and across the Hudson River into New York City.
European Metal Recycling Ltd., the company that operates that site and also owned the barge load of scrap metal that burned months later in Delaware Bay, told the safety board that improperly disposed lithium-ion batteries are plaguing the industry.
"The vice president of EMR operations, who had more than 20 years of experience in the scrap metal industry, told investigators that he did not know the cause of the January 2022 shoreside pile fire, but he highlighted the fire dangers associated with lithium-ion batteries," wrote the safety board.
"It's becoming more of a problem every month, every year in our industry," the board quoted the unnamed executive as telling the investigators.
Maria Lopez-Nunez, a community activist in Newark, lives minutes from the scrap metal pile that caught fire in 2022. She said it was one of two serious fires in scrap metal piles at the port in three months.
"The smell was incredibly metallic and chemical-y," said Lopez-Nunez.
"It really caused a lot of irritations in our neighbourhood. People complained about their eyes watering and headaches. It was pretty intense and it took a while to calm it down."
Community activist Maria Lopez-Nunez says her Newark, N.J., neighbourhood suffered through two scrap metal fires in three months in 2021 and 2022. She's calling for tougher rules and penalties for the industry. (Wayne Parry/Associated Press)
Farther south the city of Camden, N.J., had three fires at a scrap metal operation on its waterfront over two years, and now a group called the Coalition for Healthy Ports has formed in the state and is calling for more protections for the public, and stricter laws and stiffer penalties for scrapyard owners to deal with the outbreaks.
Cause of Saint John fire not yet clear
It is not clear yet what caused the fire in Saint John, only that it is part or a larger trend of fires occurring in similar plants elsewhere.
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon said she does not want to live through another one and is hoping the province or the port can find a way to permanently end AIM's lease or operational permits.
"They have the ability to shut this down," Reardon said Friday. "If this is not the opportunity, I don't know what it would take."
Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon is calling for Port Saint John and the provincial government to do what they can to permanently close a scrap metal operation in the centre of the city. (Roger Cosman/CBC)
American Iron and Metal has operated on port property on the Saint John waterfront since 2002 and has a 40-year lease.
It was a modest operation over its first decade but more than quadrupled in size after winning government approvals in 2011 to begin large-scale shredding of up to 250,000 tonnes of metal on site annually.
That expansion won environmental approvals from both the federal and provincial governments, with the federal approval relying on an opinion from the Saint John port authority that it was confident the operation would be safe.
"The authority is of the opinion that the project is not likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects," said the environmental approval from the federal government.