CAMDEN, NJ — Eastern Metal Recycling (EMR) has been fined $97,250 by the county and the state following a January fire, which sent plumes of noxious smoke into the waterfront south and downtown Camden.
The fire, which originated on the Camden waterfront at 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 29, took hours to extinguish - made more difficult by strong winds.
Camden County's Health Department Hazmat division fined the company $89,750 for the January fire. More details on the county's actions were not immediately available.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) stated in a Feb. 25 letter that following an investigation that EMR, "permitted smoke and odors from the shredded material fluff pile fire on Jan. 29 to be emitted into the outdoor atmosphere in quantities which resulted in air pollution."
The fire posed a threat to public health, the DEP states before noting a fine of $7,500. Further lack of compliance would result in additional fines, the state agency says.
Although the incident led to no deaths, at least three residents - including a firefighter and a councilwoman - were treated at a local hospital for smoke inhalation. Five other firefighters were also treated on the scene.
Various community members and activists have met virtually to discuss the fire's impact on their lives, as well as other environmental woes felt by those that reside in the waterfront south. People discussed dealing with asthma as a result of the industry in their backyard, bad smells, constant explosions and consistent truck traffic.
Benjamin Saracco, a member of Camden's shade tree advisory board and organizer with Camden for Clean Air, said he didn't feel the NJDEP fine was sufficient, "when one considers the physical and mental health damages that EMR's fires, odor pollution, blighted properties, and explosions have caused since they began operating in the city."
"The fact that EMR was awarded $252.7 million in public monies via the Grow New Jersey award and contributes very little to city services via property taxes adds salt to the wound," he told TAPinto Camden. "This company has the means to be a shining example to every other automotive recycling facility in the world on how to operate cleanly and respectfully in an environmental justice community, and they actively choose not to."
Saracco said that based on what's occurred he is not hopeful the residents' relationship with EMR can be mended.
“EMR has been engaged in ongoing dialogue with the waterfront south community, the city leadership and NJDEP since the fire incident,” Joseph Balzano, CEO of EMR USA, the parent company of EMR, told TAPinto in a statement.
Keenan Kendrick, vice president of health, safety and environment at EMR, told the NJDEP's Air Compliance and Enforcement office on Feb. 9 that it "sincerely regret[ed]" the fire.
"We know that the fire significantly disrupted - and in some cases temporarily uprooted - our Camden neighbors," Kendrick wrote in the letter obtained by TAPinto. "The fire has highlighted that we must improve our communication with our Camden community, in particular the neighbors living in the waterfront south neighborhood."
The Heart of Camden, a waterfront south organization, helped more than 45 families on the day of fire. Many reached out for more information on the temporary shelters put in place by the city or to inquire about staying at a hotel for the night for fear of breathing in anything toxic.
A mandatory evacuation was not required because of the fire.
Councilwoman Shaneka Boucher has emphasized that the action's of the city, Cooper's Ferry Partnership, the Salvation Army and others were key in the response efforts.
"These types of inadequate monetary fines and lack of consequence demonstrate that there is no incentive for companies to improve the safety of their operations or to upgrade their physical facilities," said Carlos Morales, executive director for The Heart of Camden. "This leaves communities like waterfront south at the mercy of harmful environmental events because we lack the true state oversight and high standards that our surrounding suburbs enjoy."
The Heart of Camden has led recent meetings to bring together concerned neighbors and city officials.
Following a request during a recent meeting to bring in Balzano, EMR announced it would host its own community meeting March 10.
“We look forward to continuing this productive conversation and providing more detailed information regarding specific proposed changes to our operations and further plans for community engagement...," Balzano said.
Saracco says he hopes to see the city take more action, in addition to supporting, “residents in opposing renewed, new, and expanded air permits for polluting facilities in the city's already overburdened communities.”
EMR has previously stated that it would hire a community liaison to help smooth out future communication. A spokesman said Friday that the position remains open.