Dozens of complaints to province about AIM came years before massive fire, documents show

Homeowners and residents of Saint John raised the alarm about American Iron & Metal explosions for years before the province revoked the company's licence in December 2023.

According to records obtained by Radio-Canada, the New Brunswick Department of Environment and Local Government received dozens of complaints about the operations of the scrapyard.

Records also show the company was the subject of several provincial investigations. After each investigation, AIM was nevertheless able to resume its activities.

It was not until late 2023 that AIM's licence was revoked, after a massive fire that raged for two days and produced heavy smoke that prompted a shelter-in-place warning.

The Atlantic Osprey at work helping to contain the fire at American Iron and Metal.
The Atlantic Osprey at work helping to contain the fire at American Iron & Metal in September 2023. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

A task force set up after the 2023 fire found that there were 181 explosions and 22 fires at the facility between 2011 and 2023.

The task force concluded future fires at the scrapyard are likely, and a "catastrophic" fire could happen again. It also found that AIM's waterfront location, not far from hundreds of west-side homes, is "entirely inappropriate given its now-known hazards and risks." After this report, the province revoked the scrapyard's licence. AIM is now challenging this decision in court.

Mayor says fire should never have happened

Under the Right to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, some records can be redacted if they reveal third-party information. The documents obtained by Radio-Canada revealed dozens of complaints about AIM operations, but many details have been redacted, including exactly how many complaints were made, who made them and their location.

Saint John Mayor Donna Reardon said she's not surprised by the number of complaints. She said she started getting complaints about AIM as soon as she was elected as a councillor in 2012, and they've kept coming until the licence was revoked. She said the complaints to the department "probably only represents a fraction" of the people affected by AIM operations.

"I had a lot of complaints, all of the councillors have had complaints, mayor after mayor has had complaints."

Saint John mayor Donna Reardon says the massive fire at AIM in late 2023 was the straw that broke the camel's back.
Saint John mayor Donna Reardon says the massive fire at AIM in late 2023 was the straw that broke the camel's back. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

The task force report said AIM was not following the rules when the fire started last September.

"That fire was sort of like the straw that broke the camel's back. It was unfortunate it had to happen," she said. "It should have never happened."

Reardon has been a vocal critic of the facility, which rents space to operate from Port Saint John. She said the task force report was thorough and she has faith in the process.

Explosion of Nov. 19, 2018

Multiple provincial investigation reports shed some light on the back-and-forth communication between the province and AIM, and provide details of some complaints.

On Nov. 19, 2018, AIM alerted the department by email of a "controlled pressure explosion" at its Saint John port facility at 8:43 a.m., according to one investigation report. The company said no emergency services were required.

The report said the department received several complaints about this explosion. A woman called to say her house shook, and the next day, two other people complained about an explosion. One of them said this explosion was the loudest so far and that it was the first to shake the house and the china.

On the afternoon of Nov. 19, 2018, environmental inspector Tammy Savoie McIntosh was dispatched to the company, the report says. Upon arrival, she noticed yellow smoke coming from the property.

According to the report, manager Kevin Hughes said he wasn't sure what was causing the yellow smoke, but believed it was caused by workers cutting steel.

The inspector said it wasn't acceptable to release such smoke into the atmosphere and ordered the company to stop the work.

In an email, Hughes said his crew would be switching tools to cut the steel, that the explosion was caused by a gas tank, and that the black smoke was only from the welders.

The American Iron and Metal scrap yard fire is under control, Saint John Fire Chief Kevin Clifford says.
The American Iron & Metal scrapyard fire raged for hours before it was brought under control. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

Two days later, the department received new complaints about other explosions.

A woman reported that they occurred at 9:35 a.m. and 2:54 p.m., that the furniture in her house shook and that she saw smoke coming out of a building. A man and a woman also reported an explosion that day.

The case was officially closed about a month later, on Dec. 17, 2018, without any further action by the ministry, documents show.

Explosion of March 21, 2019

Propane tanks and batteries are a few reasons given by AIM for the explosions, records show.

According to another investigation report by the ministry, AIM reported to the department that a "controlled explosion" occurred at 4:49 p.m. on March 21, 2019. In its email to the department, the company said that noises like those heard that day are "infrequent but unfortunately a normal part of our operations."

The department received a complaint shortly after from a resident who reported shaking walls and windows and said it was the second major explosion he had felt in recent months, according to the report.

The next day, McIntosh met with AIM administrative assistant Rita Burgess and inspector Wesley Pratt. Pratt said the explosion was caused by a propane tank that had been loaded into the shredder, according to the report.

The shredder was shut down immediately for repairs, company officials said.

Burgess also said that any unacceptable material will be returned to the supplier or deducted from their payments.

The case was closed approximately four months after the incident.

The Department of Environment and Local Government declined an interview request, saying the matter is now the subject of a court case.

Uncertain future of Moncton site

In late May, Public Safety Minister Kris Austin threatened to suspend or revoke AIM's licence for its Toombs Street facility in Moncton.

Austin is still reviewing and assessing AIM's response before making any further decisions, communications manager Allan Dearing told Radio-Canada.

The documents obtained also contain about 20 complaints from Moncton residents transferred by Ward 1 Coun. Shawn Crossman to the ministry.

Some materials were completely melted by the fire and resolidified into metal blocks, T. Smith Engineering Inc., found.
Some materials were completely melted by the fire and resolidified into metal blocks. (T. Smith Engineering Inc., Court of King's Bench)

"The noise is so loud that we hear it constantly, even with the windows closed, the fan running and the television on," wrote one neighbour.

"We are a kilometre away from them, but the creaking, banging and shaking windows have become a daily occurrence," said another resident.

While the documents include noise and odour complaints about AIM's Moncton facility, they don't contain any investigation reports from the Environment Department.

The company did not respond to an interview request.