‘AIM is a black eye on our community,’ says Saint John mayor

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon says “enough is enough.”

She said American Iron and Metal will be getting a bill from the city for firefighting services for last week’s blaze at the company’s west side metal recycling plant. 

The mayor isn’t sure the city has ever done that before, “but this one’s definitely going out.”

Reardon said it will cover all of the personnel and equipment tied up for several days in battling the fire that started in the dockside recycling plant early Thursday morning.

“That’s on port property. Our fire department is for our own property, for our municipality,” she said. 

“No, it’s only reasonable for us to send a bill for this.”

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon was out on Sunday, surveying the damage in King’s Square. (Alison Northcott/CBC)

Reardon said the fire diverted city officials from trying to get ready for Hurricane Lee, which was eventually downgraded to a post-tropical storm by the time it reached the Fundy coast. 

But when the fire raged on Thursday and into Friday, the city was preparing for a hurricane-force storm and needed all hands on deck, rather than dealing with a fire on federal land, said Reardon on Information Morning Saint John on Monday morning.

She said such an operation should never have been allowed to start so close to residential neighbourhoods and adjacent to a harbour that’s so important to the tourism industry.

Later Monday morning, Reardon issued a written statement saying, “The land on which AIM operates is not city land, nor do we have any jurisdiction over regulating AIM operations, yet our residents and businesses are the ones suffering the consequences — the full severity of which we may only learn in months and years to come.”

During last week’s scrapyard fire, Saint John residents were asked to take shelter from smoke

On Sept. 14, crews battled flames at the American Iron and Metal recycling plant next to Saint John Harbour. The fire was brought under control the following day.

Reardon said AIM’s location is “unacceptable and incompatible with our residential communities on both sides of the harbour, our tourism economy from the cruise industry, and our work to attract private investment to beautify our waterfront and create housing for our growing population.”

She called AIM “a black eye on our community.” 

AIM was asked — by phone and email — for an interview, but no one had responded by publication time.

Reardon said the premier’s promise of a thorough investigation with clear deadlines, including the first report within 24 hours of the incident, is “music to my ears.” 

CBC has asked the Environment Department for a copy of that report, but has not received a response to the request.

What was in the water?

Reardon said the health, social and economic impacts of the fire are likely to be felt for years — and may not be fully understood until years down the road. 

“I don’t know what was happening over there, how it was contained, but just imagine the wind mixing all of that particulate up.” 

She also worries about what chemicals may have been in the run-off as fire crews poured water on the fire for days.

Reardon believes the site likely has a catch basin of some sort, since “AIM has historically misted that pile of rubble to keep the dirt and the dust down so that I know there is a water collection component.

“But I mean, we were dumping millions of gallons of water on that and then you had a storm with torrential rains that was falling on it. So I don’t know how much has been captured with all of that.”

Nighttime image of a large fire, billowing smoke
The fire started around 1 a.m. Thursday in piles of scrap metal. Mayor Donna Reardon said there was still one fire truck on site as late as Sunday. (Submitted by Ed Moyer)

She said the tides would have washed all of that material out to sea and inland up the St. John River as they came and went. 

“So there’s all kinds of consequences to a major, major incident like that … and we may not even have thought of all of the consequences yet.”

Some economic impacts were immediate

Reardon said there were also economic impacts to local businesses who had to shut down because of the fire. 

The Plank restaurant, overlooking the Reversing Falls, was one of them. 

Pat Vaughan, one of the owners, said his restaurant had $11,000 worth of sales the day before the fire and $1,100 on the day of the fire.

Public health officials issued a shelter-in-place advisory while the fire raged, due to the poor air quality, so few people were out spending money at local businesses that day. 

‘The final straw’

Reardon said she’s looking to the provincial and federal governments to hold AIM accountable. The operation sits on federal land, while the province issues the licence to operate. 

“What we have though is a voice,” said Reardon.

And she plans to be heard. 

“I feel like this is the final straw.”

CBC requested an interview with Environment Minister Gary Crossman, but he has not yet been made available.

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