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Philadelphia’s junkyards are a dumpster fire

A spectacular fire last month in Kensington drew attention to the issues surrounding the junkyards that are plentiful in Philadelphia. They are hard to regulate, and here's why.

Metal is loaded onto a truck at a junkyard at 2200 East Somerset Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday August 1, 2018.
Metal is loaded onto a truck at a junkyard at 2200 East Somerset Street, Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday August 1, 2018.Read moreDAVID SWANSON

Billows of dense, black smoke clogged the humid air, filling it with the stench of burning plastic, papers, scrap metals.

The spectacular fire at the Kensington junkyard, where the city says debris was stacked nearly as high as a three-story house, burned out of control for three hours.

Then, within days of the July 10 fire, the junkyard, Philadelphia Metal and Resource Recovery, reopened.

Jamie Moffett, who works in the neighborhood, where he used to live, was outraged.

But, he was also grateful.

For the fire had brought attention to a neighborhood nuisance. The city moved swiftly to close it. And when the junkyard's owner, David Feinberg, went to court last week to appeal the city's decision, a judge ordered the junkyard to remain closed until it fixes its violations.

The blaze, while unfortunate, rekindled interest in a citywide issue. Philadelphia is abundant in magnificent buildings and spacious parks. But, it is also abundant in junkyards.

More than 40 are active and permitted, according to the city. Most of them are clustered in the lower Northeast, Southwest, and North Philadelphia; some located in residential neighborhoods and near playgrounds. All but four of them have been cited for violations, according to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, including one in the 4000 block of Richmond Street that has racked up 128 of them.

L&I Commissioner David Perri said most junkyards with violations voluntarily come into compliance. Some, however, don't.

In addition, any number of rogue facilities are operating around the city.

The city often lacks the resources to enforce codes crafted to protect the community and the environment, and to monitor what materials junkyards accept and how they are stored. L&I says that in the last 10 years it has ordered the closings of  "10 to 15" junkyards — but isn't sure of the exact number.

Junkyard Headaches

More than 40 junkyards in Philadelphia have active business licenses, and all but four have been cited for violations.

Junkyards do serve valuable purposes, said Perri and the Clean Air Council's Russell Zerbo. They provide jobs and offer a form of recycling and alternatives to the illegal dumping of unwanted materials. But in some cases, according to a City Planning Commission report published earlier this year, they have become problematic for the neighborhoods in which they are located, often inhabited by "vulnerable populations."

"When scrap yards choose to be bad neighbors, they endanger the community's health and safety and can even encourage and contribute to criminal activity," Perri said.

Contaminants can foul the air, and improperly stored materials — batteries, gasoline, brake fluid  — can leach into groundwater supplies, according to the report. Neighbors complain about increased traffic and noise, and junkyards often compete with "cleaner" businesses that the city would like to attract. In addition, illegal dumping often occurs near junkyards, the report said.

And evidently, they can be magnets for metal thieves. The Philadelphia region ranked second in the nation, behind New York, for the most stolen-metal insurance claims from 2014 to 2016, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which said junkyards are popular destinations for such contraband.

One enforcement obstacle is defining just what constitutes a junkyard. The city defines a junkyard as "a business that operates an area for storing wrecked or salvaged vehicles and parts."

The Kensington junkyard, located at Tulip and Somerset Streets, is a case study in regulatory challenges.

L&I has issued 71 violations against the junkyard over the last 10 years, according to public records.

Just days before the fire, however, it had been allowed to operate.

Members of the city's Scrap Yard Task Force, created in 2003, visited the yard in April 2017, said task force member Maria Horowitz. It "didn't hit our list of a bad actor," she said. "We didn't particularly find any egregious violations. Nothing imminently dangerous."

Obviously, however, 15 months after the inspection, the yard wasn't fireproof.

Maintaining a current and thorough catalog of violations is all but impossible, said Ali Kenner, a Drexel University professor, who in 2015 conducted her own study of junkyard violations.

"Even as we were reporting violations, new problems would pop up a week later," Kenner said. "The [city's] regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to deal with the problems."

The Scrap Yard Task Force inspects four junkyards each month, according to coordinator Jim D'Agostino. Moffett said he had no idea the city had such a task force. "They're certainly not doing their job," he said.

Operating under the auspices of the Water Department, the group includes representatives from L&I, Fire and Police Departments, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Andrew Goodman, of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, says he is sympathetic to the city's enforcement issues.

"Certainly, this is one example of many where cities don't have the resources," he said.

Martine DeCamp, who wrote the Planning Commission report in an effort "to get everyone on the same page," offered several recommendations, including tightening permit requirements and giving junkyard owners incentives for modernizing and beautifying their properties.

D'Agostino said he has seen some improvements. Each year, he said, city officials are "finding that more and more people are doing things more and more correctly."

But frustrations persist, said the New Kensington group's Goodman. For one thing, he said, it's not clear to whom grievances should be addressed.

Drexel's Kenner, who praised DeCamp's report, said Philadelphia needs to keep junkyards on its radar.

"I really do think that the city needs to lead the way on this issue," Kenner said. "If no one is putting eyes on the problem, it's not going to get the attention it needs."