Even before fire ripped through a pile of scrap metal last week, officials with Port Saint John were talking to American Iron and Metal about moving part of its operations off-site.
Port CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks said they talked about moving metal shredding from port property.
During a Zoom call with Premier Blaine Higgs and reporters on Tuesday morning, Bell Estabrooks was asked about whether the lease with AIM allows the port to relocate them.
Bell Estabrooks said legal counsel has been “looking at all aspects of the lease.”
Saint John city council has asked that AIM’s waterfront operation be shut down permanently. Higgs also raised the possibility the scrapyard would not be back in business, but he didn’t make a firm commitment.
He said the investigation would “get to the bottom” of what happened “and to answer the question that the public are all asking — is that operation fit to be operating where it is today?”
Before the flames were even under control last week, the province ordered AIM to shut down, and Higgs has promised to create a task force that includes Port Saint John to find out what happened.
No one was injured in the fire, but it produced a hazardous smoke and provoked a city advisory that residents take shelter or wear masks.
During Tuesday’s Zoom call, Higgs said the company won’t resume operations until “we’re satisfied that it can run, and right now, given what’s happened leading into this, there’s a lot of doubt about that.”
Higgs said the investigation will look at the fire and all of the other incidents at AIM over the last 12 years.
During that time, the company has had numerous explosions, which prompted letters from Saint John council to the province, complaints from neighbours about noise and odour, and two workplace deaths.
In a statement released late Tuesday morning, AIM acknowledged concerns expressed by Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon, and Higgs and Bell Estabrooks.
“The safety and well-being of AIM’s employees, and the residents and Community of Saint John are paramount and at the heart of AIM’s priorities,” the company said. To this end, AIM welcomes the appointment of a Government task force to investigate the incident and pledges its active support and collaboration.
“Additionally, AIM is resolute in keeping residents and stakeholders well-informed as we all navigate through this challenging situation.”
The emailed statement was signed by “The American Iron & Metal (AIM) Management Team.”
Last week, Higgs said AIM would be required to submit an initial report within 48 hours of the incident. On Tuesday, he said he hadn’t seen any report and said one “may have gone” to the Environment Department.
Province wants answers
Requests to the department for a copy of the report have not yet been answered.
“We recognize that people are angry and want answers about this and how it could have happened,” Higgs said. “We want answers as well,” said Higgs.
In addition to being the CEO of Port Saint John, Bell Estabrooks said he lives two streets from the terminal.
“I felt it. I get it. And I share their frustration as well,” he said, referring to some pretty harsh words from Saint John council on Monday night at its regularly scheduled meeting.
Councillors want the province to shut AIM down — for good.
The motion drafted on Monday night directs city staff to write to the premier and ask the province to close the scrapyard and “never allow an organization like this to operate on our waterfront or in our city again.”
“What happened last week is an abomination because it was preventable,” said Coun. Greg Norton, who made the motion. “There is no reason or room for this type of negligence in the modern world and our residents must never experience a horrific incident like that again.”
Higgs said last week’s fire could have been much worse.
He said it “had the potential to be much broader, to have much greater impact on the city had it not been for certain pieces of equipment from Atlantic Towing that were present in the harbour and happened to be there.”
2 million litres of water used
Saint John firefighters responded to the call at about 1 a.m. on Thursday and spent the next 40 hours pouring water on it.
Fire Chief Kevin Clifford estimates this added up to more than two million litres of water before crews finally pulled out at about 8 p.m. on Friday.
Clifford said a “chemical cocktail” would have been given off during the fire — into the air and into the water used to douse the flames. He said the list would include benzene, propane, propene, styrene, heptane, and toluene — basically anything that a car may have had in it before it was disposed of.
He said that cocktail of toxins eventually gets washed into the harbour, where the tides would have carried it farther up the St. John River and out to sea.