CAMDEN, NJ — Rattling walls and loud noises in the waterfront south from industry-related explosions are enough of a nuisance on their own.

But for Vie Lopez, 38, there’s an added layer.

Lopez said for a decade she faced abuse from her stepfather. Trauma that can be triggered in her memory by sudden booming noises. Noises like those that come from the EMR Recycling center.

“Every time I hear the booms I shake,” Lopez said, noting that the sounds remind her of the violent behavior she endured. “I haven't slept in months… This isn't just about the environment.”

Weeks after the massive EMR fire sent plumes of noxious smoke throughout the waterfront south neighborhood, the memory is still fresh in the minds of many.

The Heart of Camden is hosting online gatherings for impacted residents to have their voices heard and questions answered.

The explosions, just one of the many issues mentioned in the meeting, come from propane tanks at EMR. The center processes cars, as well as other recyclables and waste.

Residents have been outspoken about particulate matter and other pollutants in the air - emphasizing that constant truck traffic and unpleasant smells are common too.

While not all at the feet of EMR (formerly Camden Iron & Metal), residents expressed frustration with their significant contribution to it and consider the most recent fire - the third at the facility since 2016 - a tipping point.

Mayor Frank Moran, Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher and representatives from both EMR and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) also attended the 2-hour Zoom meeting - which drew over 50 participants and was the second held this year. 

Immediate response

There were no deaths in the January fire. However, a firefighter, at least one resident and Councilwoman Boucher were sent to the hospital. Five other firefighters were treated onsite for smoke inhalation.

A mandatory evacuation was not deemed necessary but over 30 families left the area concerned over the smoke.

The councilwoman led response efforts with the city, emergency personnel, Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, the Salvation Army and others.

Organizers from the Heart of Camden said they assisted over 45 families, fielded calls from many more throughout the day and shifted to remote work after a fog of smoke engulfed Broadway where they are based.

Donna Helmes, a Heart of Camden contributor since 1996, said one resident’s nebulizer ran out and another on oxygen felt he needed to evacuate but feared exposure to COVID-19.

“Our goal is to communicate with those [impacted] residents on an individual basis, understand what their needs are, what their concerns are, what their challenges may be, and work with [them] to determine what we can do to help,” said Keenan Kendrick Vice President of health, safety and environment at EMR, moments after providing an email that residents can contact with concerns.

One organization noted that on the day of the fire itself, EMR could not be reached, although it was later learned that they provided some of the meals to first responders and at the city’s pop-up evacuation shelters. The company also covered the hotel costs for families that opted to leave the neighborhood.

“A region-wide injustice occurred so if EMR is willing to rectify that in some way, I would hope that the method would be more comprehensive rather than piecemeal from individuals reaching out,” said Mike Morgan, an active resident. “Is there any plan [from] EMR… to provide restitution for affecting our environment? For affecting public health and well-being?”

Kendrick responded that the meeting, and other forms of outreach, were part of a plan to rebuild trust with the community. EMR also plans to hire a community liaison to relay concerns and better communication. Specific plans to compensate residents in any way have not been drawn up, he said.

“We don't want to have anything coming from our facility that's going to cause anybody trauma or to make anybody scared,” Kendrick said. “[We want] to continue to ensure that we are providing the safest operations for our personnel and for the safety of our community.”

What happened on Jan. 29?

At around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, EMR operations workers noticed smoke rising from a 2-3 story pile of “fluff” estimated to be about 300 feet by 150 feet - comprising shredded auto parts. Kendrick said workers, unable to extinguish the fire on their own, called in first responders.

More than 30 from Camden and surrounding communities were required, as winds complicated response efforts. 

Kendrick explained that EMR is ostensibly divided between shredding and separating material it receives from the region.

The goal, he said, is to remove all the metal from whatever the waste may be, whether a car, refrigerator, stove or anything else.

After material enters the shredder, EMR uses magnets to remove ferrous metals (steel or any metals that contain or consist of iron).

The material that’s removed is what is referred to as ‘fluff.”

Once the ferrous material is removed, the non-ferrous metals (such as brass, copper, aluminum) is pulled out. The next step is removing the “valuable metal” that is reusable.

“So the material that we're referring to during the incident was material that had the ferrous material [removed but] was waiting to have the non-ferrous material taken out,” Kendrick said. “We are investigating the cause…We know that it was not something nefarious, like arson or welding spark or anything like that.”

“It [was] a large pile, so it could have been something internal that started the ignition within the pile,” he added.

The company previously said what happened in January was not uncommon given the nature of the facility.

Frank McLaughlin, from the DEP, said the state agency is still assembling findings and “will be transparent” with information on its conclusion.

Communication and constant explosions

At one point the meeting turned toward EMR's relationship with the community.

Kendrick said the company, which employs 150 Camden residents full-time, would consider suggestions during the meeting: bringing on CEO Joe Balzano for a meeting and a hotline to report issues like explosions. 

Speakers overwhelmingly said they wanted EMR to be a better neighbor.

“In the waterfront south we realize transparency and collaboration only happens after catastrophic events. It’s not proactively done,” Carlos Morales, executive director for The Heart of Camden, told TAPinto Camden after the meeting.

Morales was additionally fearful of what it means for children in the area to regularly face these issues.

There was also brief discussion about who is responsible for the sometimes-daily explosions.

Moran said, “there’s gotta be some sort of quality control in place, a bigger investment to prohibit these booms." The mayor suggested EMR conduct a poll for residents who don't or can’t access the community meetings.

For Lopez, the main issue continues to be the explosions and the trauma it reminds her of.

“It was difficult to share [what happened with my stepfather], however, I wanted to put some perspective for the issues at hand and show how it important it is they get resolved,” she said.

The Heart of Camden will host another meeting on Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. For updates click here or visit Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET) Facebook page.

The Residents of Waterfront South and Camden Collaborative Initiative have also been involved with local engagement.

Camden for Clean Air also leads environmental efforts. 

To report issues to EMR, email camdencommunity@emrgroup.com.

The DEP says residents can report issues at 1-877-WARN-DEP (927-6337). Complaints are gathered online here.

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