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Southwest Philly’s vulnerable residents feel impacts of junkyard fire: ‘It was scary, really’

Even if the fire didn’t release enough toxic compounds to substantially threaten public health, an expert said there may have been enough to impact people with preexisting heart and lung conditions.

Jacqueline Newsome, 69, lives down the street from the junkyard fire at Delaware Valley Recycling, Inc. The smoke flared up her asthma, and Wednesday her eyes still burned and her throat was hoarse.
Jacqueline Newsome, 69, lives down the street from the junkyard fire at Delaware Valley Recycling, Inc. The smoke flared up her asthma, and Wednesday her eyes still burned and her throat was hoarse.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

By Wednesday morning, most Philadelphians had moved on from worrying about the effects of the black smoke billowing from a large junkyard fire in Southwest Philadelphia the previous evening. But the vulnerable residents who live closest to the site continued to feel the impact in the following days — their noses running, eyes burning, chest and lungs feeling tight.

Brenda Pate, 73, vomited from inhaling the foul-smelling smoke, which came in through her windows. Her husband, Nicholas, said, “It smelled like dead bodies.” Wednesday afternoon, Brenda said she still felt weak and dizzy from the exposure.

Jacqueline Newsome, 69, who has asthma, had to walk through the dark smoke to get from her parked car to her home. She went into a coughing fit, she said, and had to use her inhaler multiple times for the first time in years. She lay with a cold washcloth over her eyes to stop the burning Tuesday night, and her throat remained sore and voice hoarse Wednesday.

“It was scary. I was saying, “Oh Lord, please don’t make me have to go to the hospital,’” she said.

Phil Auld, an owner of Delaware Valley Recycling Inc., where the fire occurred, apologized for it and said company officials are cooperating with authorities to understand what happened.

“We’re certainly sorry for the fire here, and we’re doing everything in our power to clean up and get it behind us and be a good corporate citizen,” he said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, but Auld said it’s possible a client dropped off materials that contained an accelerant.

Air Management Services within Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health tested the air at the site Tuesday evening and said Wednesday that “no toxic compounds were identified ... at levels that would threaten the public’s health.” The greatest risk to residents, the department said, was higher-than-normal fine particles, or PM 2.5, in the air.

Still, burning tires release a variety of toxic chemicals that act as irritants, said Marilyn Howarth, a physician with the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology.

Even if, as the health department says, the fire didn’t release enough toxic compounds to substantially threaten public health, Howarth said there may have been enough to affect people with preexisting heart and pulmonary issues.

“The kind of fire and the amount of smoke was health impactful and relevant even if the concentrations of toxic chemicals may not have reached levels that were immediately dangerous to life,” said Howarth.

The fire is also the latest example of how residents who live in neighborhoods like Southwest Philadelphia — which is sandwiched among I-95, Philadelphia International Airport, and a former oil refinery, and has a higher concentration of industrial businesses such as junkyards and auto shops — endure greater exposure to environmental toxicants, Howarth said.

“People who are living in lower-income neighborhoods may have other disparities in their health status,” said Howarth. “They might have less of an ability to get the medical care they need, may have barriers to transportation to medical care and to mitigation devices like air purifiers.”

‘It was scary, really’

The Brady Veterans Center, a 63-unit affordable apartment complex for veterans and their families, sits on the corner of 61st Street and Eastwick Avenue and backs up to a stretch of industrial-type businesses, like auto shops, towing businesses, scrapyards, and the Delaware Valley Recycling facility.

Most of the residents of the complex are elderly, lower-income people of color, and many have medical conditions, residents said.

Piles of tires and construction debris went up in flames at Delaware Valley Recycling around 3 p.m. Tuesday, and it took about 100 firefighters about 2½ hours to get the blaze under control. The Fire Department remained on scene Thursday, working to put out smoldering remains.

Smoke surrounded the apartments, located less than a half-mile from the site, penetrating some homes and overwhelming some of the sick and elderly.

“I got sick. I started throwing up. I couldn’t sleep,” said Brenda Pate, who has lived there for 11 years and has diabetes, high blood pressure, and lung sensitivity. “It was awful. It was scary, really.”

Pate’s neighbor of 11 years, Aleta Gordon, said some smoke went inside her home, too. The 65-year-old, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema, and heart problems, said she had been feeling better the last couple of days, but the smoke set her back.

“I’m on oxygen, and I can’t breathe,” Gordon said between gasps from inside her home.

In a statement, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said she was concerned for neighborhood residents and that “the Health Department is dedicated to reviewing and updating all of our emergency response plans to ensure that all communities can feel safe and protected even in situations like this.”

Company passed recent inspection

Delaware Valley Recycling acts as a middleman, taking truckloads of construction debris, metals, and millings and either recycles them or loads the materials in trailers that are sent to landfills hundreds of miles away, owner Auld said. The most recent state inspection report said the company stored about 80 tons of tires at the site. An excavator cuts the rubber and separates it from the rims, which are collected and recycled. The waste tires are then shipped to Conestoga Landfill in Morgantown, Berks County, the report said.

Auld said nothing is burned or incinerated at the Philadelphia location.

“Delaware Valley Recycling is not to blame for any problems that people have with breathing,” he said.

The cause of the fire, which ignited an estimated six piles of tires and debris, remains under investigation. The Fire Department estimated that some of the piles were upwards of six stories high. Yet state law requires that tire piles not exceed 15 feet, and city law is stricter, capping the height of tire piles at 10 feet.

Auld could not be reached for comment on whether the tire storage followed state guidelines.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection inspected the facility, including the outdoor tire storage area, on Nov. 3 and reported no violations, and the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has not received any complaints about the site, said spokesperson Karen Guss.

The company’s permits are up to date with the state, and as a state-registered tire processing facility, it does not need additional licenses or permits with the city, said Guss.

The city’s scrapyard task force, which is a cross-departmental group of city and state officials who inspect scrapyards, has visited the facility in the past, but it’s unclear when, and the last time was before the coronavirus pandemic began, Guss said.

The Southwest Philadelphia community has long advocated for more oversight of the industrial businesses within the community. The area was historically zoned as industrial, with less transit connectivity and more rail tracks and open land parcels, but as the population has grown and neighborhoods have expanded, the residential-industrial lines have blurred.

“In lower-income areas of color, the residential-industrial distinction doesn’t really matter, because that’s where we allow industrial facilities to be commingled with residential areas,” said Russell Zerbo, an advocate with the Clean Air Council, who has worked with Southwest Philadelphians to push for greater oversight of these businesses.

“The city’s outdoor tire storage code is very, very clear,” he said. “A pile of tires like that, it’s just an accident waiting to happen. And that’s why the city has a fire code.”