Shaneka Boucher lives in Waterfront South, and after an Oct. 18 fire at EMR Recycling’s facility — at least the third one since January 2021 that forced some residents from their homes due to smoke and airborne irritants — the City Councilwoman was once again working to set up a meeting between her fellow residents and the company’s representatives.
That meeting will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. at Heart of Camden, 1840 Broadway.
As the fire that ignited in a pile of auto fluff smoldered, smoke poured into Waterfront South and the smell wafted into neighboring towns. It wasn’t as bad as the fire in January 2021, but it wasn’t good, either: Residents again said the smoke got into homes, causing concern especially among parents of infants and young children and elderly people living in an industrial part of the city where air quality is a constant worry.
At least one thing has changed in the last 21 months, though, Boucher said.
“Everyone was on it (immediately): the county (Office of Emergency Management), there were texts and calls that went out to residents. Heart of Camden (a neighborhood nonprofit), the city ― it was a partnership you want to see in an event like that.
“This was the first time (there’s been a fire at EMR) that everybody did the right thing.”
EMR, too, has shown some improvement in at least one facet of its relationship with its neighbors, Boucher said.
“It is getting better — not with the fire, but its transparency and accountability is definitely better than last year.”
Jan.29, 2021:Fire at South Camden recycling plant sends noxious smoke into neighborhood
Feb. 21, 2022Fire at EMR scrapyard sends smoke plume into Camden neighborhood
Oct. 18, 2022:Fire at EMR sends foul smell into air in, around Camden
Joe Balzano Jr., CEO of EMR U.S.A., said in a phone interview his company “takes full responsibility” for the fire, which he said was caused by lithium ion batteries (LIBs), which can ignite when damaged.
“They’re finding their way into the recycling stream and they’re undetectable,” said Balzano. “They’re smuggled into or hidden in our facilities, and despite us trying to be as rigorous as possible, there are times when they slip by.”
Balzano forwarded the Courier-Post an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report entitled “An Analysis of Lithium-ion Battery Fires in Waste Management and Recycling,” which noted that “the highly mechanized waste management process often includes machines that crush and consolidate waste and is inhospitable to LIBs, which can be damaged easily.
“When damaged,” the report continued, “LIBs can start fires by igniting the surrounding trash and recyclables.”
Lithium ion batteries: An industry-wide problem, a global dilemma
“Due to increased consumer adoption of portable electronics, LIBs will only continue to become moreprevalent in the waste management process and incidents such as these could also increase,” the EPA report warned. “However, through increased collaboration between and action by consumers, industry, and regulators,approaches to safely managing these batteries could be evaluated and implemented.”
After last year’s fire, EMR promised to improve its fire detection and prevention, adding machine and human surveillance. Balzano said the company would continue to “step up our efforts with new technology every day, with heat detections and smoke detection.”
“We do everything we can, we make every effort we possibly can (to prevent LIB fires) without the help of the manufacturers,” Balzano said.
But, he added, there’s currently no way to find and identify the small batteries when they’re inside something much larger.
“There’s a reason you can’t take one on a plane,” he said. (The batteries are prohibited for checked luggage, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.) “This isn’t (exclusive) to EMR; it’s happening at facilities across the country. It’s a recycling and waste industry issue.”
The growing popularity of electric vehicles make the need for a solution more urgent, Balzano said.
“(LIBs and electric vehicles) are the way of the future, it’s how things should go,” he admitted. “And with that, there will be growing pains, and not just in terms of charging them, which is where everyone’s focus is right now, but also the disposal of all these batteries.”
While EMR’s parent company, based in the United Kingdom, is involved in research and development efforts to figure out how to safely and responsibly dispose of or even recycle the batteries, he asserted that “we also need some responsibility from the manufacturers.”
“Right now, they’re unidentifiable,” Balzano said. “You don’t know they’re there, and they’re in everything: electronic cigarettes, phones, appliances, bikes, cars. They literally come in all shapes and sizes and forms and they’re often inside something else.”
Frustration all around
As last week’s fire prompted some residents to seek shelter outside the city or at the Hilton Garden Inn on the Camden Waterfront, many expressed anger and frustration with EMR.
Michael Morgan told the Courier-Post the following day he was “absolutely furious” and “scared for the third time in 21 months not knowing what my kids and my neighbors kids are breathing in.” He called EMR a “negligent company.”
Vince Basara, the city spokesman, and Boucher both said the city is working with the state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to hold EMR responsible for any violations. NJDEP’s website lists 13 pending enforcement actions against EMR since Jan. 1, 2021, including citations for the Jan. 29, 2021 fire.
“We will continue to work with EMR and DEP,” said Basara. “The top priority is the well-being of our Camden residents.”
He added: “It’s not fair to the residents in Waterfront South and the people in surrounding communities to deal with this constant concern. The city recognizes the impact on the community and it will be dealt with in a timely manner.”
Balzano, whose father’s name is memorialized at the South Jersey Port just south of EMR’s facility, bristled at the idea of Waterfront South being a so-called “sacrifice zone,” a term used to describe communities with heavy industry and pollution, often communities made up of poor people and people of color.
He said he understands and shares residents’ concern.
“I’m extremely frustrated; I couldn’t be more frustrated,” he said. He said EMR has met with community members in the past and will continue to do so, and he pointed not only to the many union jobs EMR has provided to Camden residents, but also to the company’s community outreach efforts.
“We are stepping up, making every effort we can to be a good corporate neighbor,” he said. “We’ll be there (at the meeting) and will stand in front of the public and represent ourselves as best we can. I didn’t sleep (the night of the fire). This is going to tear me up. The people of Camden are proud of their city. And I am proud of Camden and we don’t want to do anyone there any harm.”
The meeting Thursday at Heart of Camden will mark another chance for residents to vent their concerns.
Asked about EMR’s place in Camden, as both a neighbor and an employer in a city long starved for good jobs, Basara said, “We want to emphasize public health and the safety of our residents are the city’s top priorities. And nothing supersedes that.”
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She’s called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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