August 18, 2008

Scrapyard Fire Fouls Air for Miles

By Randal Edgar; Tom Mooney

JOHNSTON -- Firefighters from four communities scrambled into the late evening to snuff out a fire yesterday that sent columns of black smoke into the sky from piles of burning cars at a scrap metal plant.

The fire broke out at about 2 p.m. in stacks of junked cars that had to be pulled apart so firefighters could get at them with water and put out hundreds of individual fires -- a painstaking process that was expected to go well into the night.

Smoke from the fire, at the Metals Recycling plant off Oakdale Avenue, could be seen for miles against the blue afternoon sky and left an acrid smell in the air in areas that included Providence's downtown and its Manton and Federal Hill neighborhoods.

"Everybody had to close their windows," said Louie DiBiaso, a Providence resident who came over from his home on Chalkstone Avenue, near Triggs Memorial Golf Course. "We're up on top of the hill and I'm looking around and I'm saying, 'What is going on?' "

Fire officials were unable to determine immediately what caused the blaze. There were no early reports of injuries.

Flames shot from piles of crushed cars stacked 15 to 20 high during the afternoon as firefighters from Johnston, North Providence, Providence and Cranston aimed water from aerial ladders and peripheral locations.

Flames were still showing in the early evening as a front-end loader pulled out and separated piles of cars so firefighters could get at them with water.

Johnston Fire Chief Andrew J. Baynes said it was a tedious process, made more so by numerous small explosions and the dark, heavy smoke, which forced firefighters to wear air tanks.

Colin Kelly, a spokesman for Metals Recycling, said the vehicles are drained of their fluids, but Baynes said some residual fluids remain in the cars, which are shredded at the plant so the materials that go into them can be sold as scrap.

A wind from the west kept the smoke away from Johnston neighborhoods that surround the 10-to-12-acre Metals Recycling property, and the dry conditions allowed the smoke to rise, all of which was good, said John P. Leo, an oil and hazardous materials specialist for the state Department of Environmental Management.

Leo said the smoke was blowing toward neighborhoods in Providence that were about a mile away, far enough for it to dissipate, though that didn't stop residents from complaining and raising concerns about toxins.

It was not the first fire at Metals Recycling; nor was it the first time the operation has drawn complaints from residents. The business, one of the largest scrap-metal operations, in Rhode Island, has a long history of explosions and fires and agreed in 2003 to pay $250,000 to settle claims that it illegally hauled, stored and disposed of hazardous waste.

Leo praised the company for its recent efforts to run a good operation, however, and said the company was instrumental in helping firefighters get at the blaze yesterday by removing cars at the perimeter of the area that was burning. Kelly said that area was measured about 16 rows by six rows of stacked cars, taking up only a small portion of the property.

With all the water being sprayed on the fire, Leo said Metals Recycling would hire an outside contractor to check its retention pond, which is set up to deal with runoff from the junked vehicles but not in the amounts created yesterday.

"This is not normal," he said.

The fire drew hundreds of spectators.

"We were on the way home and we saw the fire and we came here to see what happened," said Imane Mazzane, a Greenville resident who watched with her parents, both visiting from Morocco.

A firefighter, among personnel from four communities fighting the blaze, takes a brief respite from the heat and smoke. The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer

Smoke billows up from burning stacks of junk cars at Metals Recycling, in Johnston, yesterday afternoon, as a crane works to separate the chunks of metal so that firefighters can better attack the flames. The Providence Journal / Frieda Squires

Firefighters play water on the stacks of junked cars from the air and the ground yesterday afternoon. Some firefighters were expected to be on the scene throughout the night. The Providence Journal Bob Thayer, top; Frieda Squires, left [email protected] / (401) 277- 7359 [email protected] / (401) 277-7418

Originally published by Randal Edgar; Tom Mooney, Journal Staff Writers.

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