By Sofiya Ballin | ecoWURD
It was preventable.
That’s what was reported after thick smoke and fire billowed from a neighborhood scrapyard at the 2200 Somerset block in Kensington and left a firefighter injured in August.
And, in many ways, it wasn’t like it was a surprise, either. The site had accumulated numerous violations, from mislabeling storage containment units to excessive and towering collections of tires. The scrap piles reached as high as 30 feet – the height of an average two story building – and the massive junkyard remained open as it continued receiving multiple citations from the Philadelphia Department of License and Inspections over the last ten years.
Two weeks after the fire, the junkyard was shutdown.
But only for a few weeks. According to the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, after a hearing in early August, the court had two stipulations for the scrapyard owner: bring the scrap piles down to 10 feet and clear fire access lanes between piles and the property line.
After the owner complied, the junkyard was back in business.
Andrew Goodman, Director of Community Engagement for New Kensington Community Development Corporation, said that residents are “surprised and disappointed.”
“Neighbors feel like their concerns about a non-compliant business like this have not been seen or heard,” said Goodman.
Myra Smith, 80, lives in that neighborhood and she has a penchant for beautifying her community. She was leading a clean-up at one of her initiatives, the Amber Street Community Garden, when she spoke with ecoWURD. Smith is also the block captain and an active member of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Smith said about the fire as she sat on a bench in the new garden.
Smith moved to Kensington in 1980 and claims she’s been in an ongoing battle with the scrapyard that leaves dirt, dust and cars throughout the neighborhood.
“We can co-exist, but do your part,” she said. “You come to this community to make money, but don’t decrease our quality of life in the meantime.”
Vanilla McNeal, 58, another block captain a few homes over expressed similar frustration. “They should close it down completely because it’s in a neighborhood with residents,” she said. “There’s no way we should have to endure not knowing if this place is going to catch fire again.”
A month later, there was a junkyard fire in Northeast Philadelphia, the blaze caused SEPTA and Amtrak delays at nearby stations.
What about the other scrap yards in Philadelphia?
A 17-page report issued by the Philadelphia Planning Commission earlier this year attempted to answer that. What we do know is that more than “160 acres of land are devoted to 43 actively-licensed auto wrecking and junk yards.”
That means there are nearly 200 football fields of junkyards in Philly.
And it appears “many are concentrated in areas that also include vulnerable populations, high levels of industrial activity, and significant environmental challenges.”
This map, according to the Planning Commission, probably doesn’t even show the full picture.
THE STRUGGLE TO SHUT THEM DOWN
We can only know her as “Marlene.” She feels uncomfortable sharing her name. But, she lives in Southwest Philadelphia, and she’s been working to dismantle unlicensed and hazardous auto-related businesses in her community for four years.
Less than a block away from her house sits a junkyard
Or, as she calls it, “the Hot Mess.”
The 57 year-old first noticed a problem when there was an excessive amount of cars lined up outside of her house and down her street. Then there was the fire in 2014, a blaze she believes was started by a tipped over kerosene heater. After that, she began working alongside advocacy organizations such as Empowered Community Development Corporation (CDC) and the Clean Air Council to take action.
“You think there would be a big sign that says ‘SCRAPYARD’ but there isn’t one,” she tells ecoWURD. “Yet, you still have little small pockets of scrapyards.”
Instead, many of these locations fly under the guise of “auto-related businesses” even though some morph into these potential fire and safety hazards, others hotbeds for illegal scrapping. This makes it hard to track and calculate how many scrap yards are actually in the city.
However, Marlene said, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
MAPPING THE DANGER
The Southwest CDC put a map together that detailed 122 auto businesses in her area. Within a week, Marlene updated that map and organized a spreadsheet that has a total number of 172 auto-related businesses within 10.2 square miles.
Just this year, there were two fires in the neighborhood related to these scrap yards. In a 15-minute walk around her neighborhood she points out four auto shops.
They’re all surrounded.
For many auto-shops the scrapping becomes another source of revenue. Customers come in with scraps containing various metals in exchange for cash. The issue is that when this is done illegally and without proper regulation they can expose individuals around them to harmful contaminants.
Russell Zerbo, the Advocacy Coordinator from the Clean Air Council, has been working with Marlene and other residents about these issues. Zerbo explains that it doesn’t take a fire to make a junkyard dangerous.
“Even without the fires these facilities impact quality of life in a negative way, their day to day business impacts public health,” said Zerbo. “The kind of substances being burned and the amount of ash that results from a fire like this are gargantuan.”
In a report filed by L&I last November, inspectors found several violations at the scrapyard. Welding and cutting was taking place at the site without a permit and there was a large “accumulation of combustible waste material” that was improperly stored.
Zerbo said that when particulant matter and soot gets into the respiratory system it can cause inflammation, asthma, heart disease and, even, diabetes. Philadelphia already has some of the highest premature cardiovascular disease mortality rates in the nation – according to its own health department, it has the highest such rate – nearly 100 deaths per 100,000 – among 11 major cities … and it surpasses the national rate of 62.5 per 100,000.
The Commission’s report details the effects that a poorly operated and uncontrolled scrapyard can have. Is the presence of so many unregulated or badly run junkyards making chronic disease in Philly worse?
With so much exposure, it’s likely. The city just doesn’t know the full extent of it. The Commission’s findings, however, tell a story of high levels of toxic exposure to the “community and waterways” from an alarming list of pollutants. There is “contamination through the mismanagement of gasoline, diesel fuel, transmission fluid, oil, power steering and brake fluids, mineral spirits, gear oil, HID head lamps, mercury from light switch assemblies, display screen back lighting, …sodium azide from air bags, asbestos from brake shoes and clutches, and waste tires,” says the commission report.
“A lot of people from the meetings we’ve went to said when the [scrapyard] burns stuff, the smoke comes inside their homes,” said McNeal from Kensington. “You have kids and senior citizens with breathing problems. It’s a health hazard.”
A DIRTY BUSINESS
Despite the danger, there is no real regulatory department overseeing these scrapyards. They just exist, grow and, sometimes, they burn.
“There is no one body, or to my knowledge, a scrapyard task force that exists,” says Marlene. “It places an unfair burden on the community to police these businesses.”
After ecoWURD reached out to L&I, they stated there is a scrapyard task force comprised of Water, L&I, the Fire and Police Departments and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
“They proactively inspect scrap yards all year round,” a spokesperson explained by email. “The City (usually L&I) also responds to complaints and issues violations when necessary.”
If owners do not comply, the city then takes them to court.
But if there is a coalition of agencies fighting negligent junk yards, it’s not clear if it’s effective or visible.
Marlene has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and claims the junkyard has been here before her.
“A lot of these places have been here since the industrial era,” Zerbo adds in a conversation with ecoWURD. Many of these areas were also once the location of factories, mills and workshops from the industrial boom. As time passed the buildings changed. But the locations are still used to manufacture or restructure material parts.
But the report also shows that these scrapyards often survive and thrive in marginalized communities, specifically communities of color. These areas “where 20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is minority.”
They’re referred to as “environmental justice communities.”
Maurice Jones, operations manager of PAR-Recycle Works said it’s because “they’re in impoverished neighborhoods.”
“You never see it in Northern Liberties, Rittenhouse Square or Chestnut Hill.”
“The city appears to be unwilling to enforce their own regulations within certain underserved neighborhoods,” argues Zerbo. “Only recently, has the city began to get a lot of heat for issues like this.”
And it’s difficult protesting a problem that’s right in your backyard when the individuals who literally own the problem know where you live. It explains Marlene’s reluctance to provide her full name for this story.
“They are held hostage,” said Marlene. “They are too afraid.”
When it comes to fighting back, some of the sites have used intimidation tactics that keep residents from resisting and reporting.
“This is a dirty business,” said Jones. “Literally and figuratively.”’
Jones said there’s a massive black market throughout the city and region-wide where scraps are stolen from abandoned homes and taken to junkyards. No one’s policing this. Sometimes, these thefts are from individuals who turn to this underground economy as a last resort. Many are homeless and others are trapped in cycles of drug addiction. Scraps provide a source of revenue to feed mouths, livelihoods and habits.
“People make their livelihood out of scrapping,” said Jones.“This doesn’t negate from the fact that this is serving a purpose for people. It has to be regulated and there needs to be oversight.”
LOOKING FOR INTERVENTIONS
Some policymakers are beginning to realize the danger of junk yards after years of complaints from constituents and advocacy groups. Recently, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, who represents parts of Center City, South and Southwest Philadelphia, intervened and a cease and desist was put on the junkyard. He told ecoWURD that it was a “very real public safety threat” and that the junkyard problem “requires constant, aggressive follow up.”
In 2014, he passed a bill that changed the zoning designation from industrial “so that any new intensive auto-related businesses that wants to come into the community can no longer be built by right and must have input from the community the business will impact.”
After Johnson organized what he called a “Quality of Life’ initiative, he points out that Philadelphia’s L&I has reported 72 locations in his district that had multiple violations issues. Five businesses have ceased operations, others complied with their violations or closed of their own accord and more than 300 vehicles have been towed off the streets in Southwest Philadelphia.
“We’re making progress, but there’s still work to be done,” he said. “I’ll continue to work with local residents and city agencies to address problems with scrap yards and illegal chop shops in Southwest Philadelphia.”
However, Marlene wasn’t aware of the improvements. She said this information was not conveyed to the community.
“We need more than an initiative. We need a real solid plan,” she argues. “How many of those 300 cars are back in the same place? What did you really solve?”
Since the cease order, residents in Marlene’s community said they’ve been waiting to hear from the Zone Board of Adjustment on whether or not the junkyard will be shut down for good.
“They said soon, but that was in April,” she said.
As of now, the junkyard hasn’t posed any health consequences that they know of. But, residents still worry. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t future consequences. And there could be hazards they can’t see.
For this neighborhood, this is a fight to prevent the preventable.
“We’ve won a lot of cases and lost a lot” Marlene recalls.“And every time we win it’s a win for the community.”