New Brunswick premier vows comprehensive review after massive Port Saint John fire

Fire at a metal recycling yard in Saint John, N.B.

SAINT JOHN, N.B. – A joint task force investigation into last week’s major fire at a scrapyard in Saint John, N.B., will consider whether the recycling plant should continue operating at the city’s port, says Premier Blaine Higgs.

Higgs made the comments Tuesday during a news conference, a day after Saint John city council passed a motion calling on the province to close down the American Iron & Metal plant for good.

“Whether it will run again at that facility is yet to be determined,” the premier said. “All activities in relation to its operation have ceased and will not resume until our investigations are fully complete.”

The massive fire at the Saint John harbour facility, which started Thursday and was extinguished over the weekend, prompted officials to warn residents across the city to stay indoors and close their windows. Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon has described the fire as being the size of three football fields and about three storeys tall at its peak, leaving an acrid smell in the air.

Higgs said the investigation will be conducted jointly by his government and Port Saint John.

“We recognize people are angry and want answers about this and how it could have happened,” said Higgs. “No stone is going to be left unturned here as we understand what has happened in the past, what’s happened in this past week, and what’s needed in order to ensure that this never happens again.”

The premier said the investigation would include a review of past provincial oversight at the facility.

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The Saint John council motion asks the province to close down 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 councillor Greg Norton who brought forward 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.”

In a statement, American Iron & Metal said it welcomed the appointment of a government task force to investigate the fire and it pledged its support and collaboration.

“Additionally, AIM is resolute in keeping residents and stakeholders well-informed as we all navigate through this challenging situation,” company management said.

Port CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks said the only activity allowed at the site would be emergency work to stabilize the area. The port’s lawyers are also actively reviewing all aspects of the lease with the company in order to see whether it has been in compliance with the terms, he said.

Bell Estabrooks also confirmed that the port had been exploring moving the metal shredding component of the scrapyard’s operation off port property in the weeks leading up to the fire.

“These discussions were in very early stages,” he said.

The scrapyard, which shreds and recycles old vehicles and other scrap metal, has been plagued by several explosions over the 12 years it has operated at the port, and there have been two workplace deaths.

In June of last year, 60-year-old Darrell Richards died after being injured while working at the scrapyard. The incident led to four workplace safety charges against American Iron and Metal. And a coroner’s inquest has been scheduled for next month in Saint John into the November 2021 death of worker Bruce Legace at the scrapyard.

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“The series of explosions, fires, accidents and tragic deaths that have occurred at the AIM site must stop,” Bell Estabrooks said Tuesday.

 

– By Keith Doucette in Halifax

Feature image: Firefighters battle a blaze on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2023, at a metal recycling yard along the harbour at Saint John, New Brunswick. The New Brunswick government has ordered the plant at the Port of Saint John to stop operating until an investigation is completed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michael Hawkins