Officials investigate Sims fire


By Sue Dremann, Palo Alto Weekly

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District is investigating Sunday's fire at a scrap metal recycling facility in Redwood City that led to "shelter in place" warnings in the area, including in Atherton and Menlo Park.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had an emergency-response team at the site of the fire, the Sims Metal Management scrap yard at 699 Seaport Boulevard near the Port of Redwood City.

The air in Menlo Park and Atherton was filled with foul-smelling, acrid smoke for several hours on Sunday. "We're definitely smelling the toxic smoke from this fire, and are hunkered down in the house with the windows closed," a Menlo Park resident posted online Sunday. "Is anyone else getting a headache from it?"

Particulate matter -- fine particles of materials including smoke -- measured 2.5 micrograms Sunday and was at extremely high levels, said Lisa Fasano, spokesperson for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

Such small particles are of concern because they can't be seen and are breathed into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, she said. The actual components of the particulate materials have not been identified, she said.

"Oftentimes and I don't know if it is the case in this matter the fires burn so hot that the materials get burned in the combustion of the fire. The bigger issue is that the particulate matter causes an immediate health risk," she said. Symptoms include difficulty breathing and respiratory distress.

She said the smoke was trapped close to the ground because of an inversion layer, a weather occurrence in which temperature increases with elevation rather than the other way around.

Sims Metal, which leases land from the Port of Redwood City, recycles scrap metal, cars, appliances and electronics, and calls itself the largest metals recycling company in the world.

In a statement, Sims Metal officials stated the facility was operational and open for business as of Monday morning.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

The company stated that it has installed multiple fire hydrants and added and expanded fire lanes and fire access gates to the property in recent years. It also limited the height and quantity of stockpiled material.

Company officials stated that the facility is designed to contain storm water, so none of the water used to fight the fire left the property.

"We always consider adopting additional corrective measures when recommended," company officials said. "We also engage in regular fire prevention training, and inspect our facilities on an ongoing basis, implementing corrective measures resulting from those inspections."

Sims has had several fires at its facilities in recent years. The company has been cited for pollution problems at its Redwood City facility.

In April 2007, a large fire of burning crushed cars at the Sims site sent clouds of smoke over neighborhoods east of U.S. 101. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District cited Sims after residue (including toxic polychlorinated byphenyls, known as PCBs, and heavy metals) from the plant drifted into adjacent wetlands, according to an agency incident report.

In August of this year, Sims had a huge fire at its Jersey City, New Jersey, facility. The same location had a second fire early in October, according to East Coast news reports.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also halted loading of shredded materials onto container ships by the Redwood City facility in 2011, after inspectors found that PCBs, mercury, lead and other pollutants were spilling into San Francisco Bay, according to an EPA findings report and order.

Soils around the facility had high levels of heavy metals and other hazardous substances, EPA officials said at the time.

Sunday's fire

The "shelter in place" health advisory was lifted around 6:20 a.m. Monday, about 17 hours after the fire was reported burning in an outdoor pile of scrap recyclables.

Menlo Park district and Redwood City firefighters responded to the fire, which was deemed under control around 8:30 p.m. Sunday, but firefighters were still working at the site Monday.

No injuries were reported and no evacuations were necessary.

Almanac staff and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.


Like this comment
Posted by Donald
a resident of another community
on Nov 11, 2013 at 9:56 pm

"Particulate matter -- fine particles of materials including smoke -- measured 2.5 micrograms Sunday"

Something is missing from this statement. 2.5 micrograms is a measure of mass, not density or concentration. Was it 2.5 micrograms per liter? By itself the published statement is meaningless. I am tired of reading articles written by reporters with no technical knowledge who present nonsense statements. I doubt that the BAAQMD spokesperson would be so clueless as to make a statement like that, so I assume that the reporter botched the quote, but I could be wrong.

Like this comment
Posted by sloppy
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 12, 2013 at 12:28 am

It's 2.5 microns -- the size of the particles that are most dangerous.

"Particles in the PM2.5 size range are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Exposure to fine particles can cause short-term health effects such as eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, sneezing, runny nose and shortness of breath. Exposure to fine particles can also affect lung function and worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease."

The reporter completely lost the plot on this one. Without indicating the level of pm2.5, we have no way of knowing about the toxicity.

Like this comment
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Nov 12, 2013 at 12:40 pm

Yes -- PM2.5 means particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or smaller. Most of the particulate matter formed in combustion is PM2.5 and it is of concern because it can travel deep into the lungs and because it can be composed of toxic materials. Hopefully EPA or BAAQMD was taking samples and will be able to tell us how toxic the PM2.5 we all breathed was... chromium, lead, mercury, manganese...

What about the nonsensical BAAQMD spokesperson statement "Oftentimes ... the fires burn so hot that the materials get burned in the combustion of the fire..." <<what?>> some job training might be in order.

That metals recycling operation should not be allowed down there -- should be a Crissy Field type park.

Like this comment
Posted by V
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 12, 2013 at 1:45 pm

"We're definitely smelling the toxic smoke from this fire, and are hunkered down in the house with the windows closed," a Menlo Park resident posted online Sunday. "Is anyone else getting a headache from it?"

Not only a headache to start with, but then burning eyes with tearing, followed by serious muscle weakness with difficulty thinking, mild nausea, noticeable breathing impediments, with my throat sore, swelling. I have an immune system disorder from persistent infection, and thought, “If I keep getting worse, I’ll call 911,” visualizing the functional beauty of an air mask. (10/12: Symptoms reduced in intensity, but most remain. Visible new dust ubiquitous. Ordering more HEPA filters, masks, etc.) Web Link)

Initially, I thought a motor on some two-year old equipment inside my leaky, old apartment was burning up, so I quickly turned it off and unplugged it. Trying to let in fresh air from the window above it, the stench of burning chemicals poured in. So next I assumed some workers in downtown Menlo Park must be using some terrible remodeling chemicals; but it smelled even worse than a noxious roofing mixture, much worse than anything I’ve ever smelled in my four years living near Santa Cruz Avenue. Confusion can set in with angioedema (B/P can drop), so the possibility of a massive toxic plume of smoke billowing into my “w/original-windows” unit never occurred to me. Let alone that it originated from 3-3/4 miles away, wind-wise.

Just as I was soon to leave my apartment - thinking from my physical reactions I likely did not have the strength to drive any distance, but assuming I would feel much better getting away from Santa Cruz Avenue, or to ER - I got the first of three fire department robo-calls - two Sunday, and one Monday. I almost didn't answer the call, thinking, "I gotta hurry up to get out of here so I can breathe!"


Gratefully, due to that automated call, I never did open my front door. My IQAir air purifier was already cranked up to maximum due to sickening smells filling my apartment interior. Later, I only felt any breathing relief sitting right next to the air purifier, after working to seal up my unit from inside. (Note: Last night the prefilter filled, after only a month of use. The original prefilter lasted 12 months.)

Knowing my building, in its 7th decade, is not fully sealable, I did my best with packaging tape, recycling papers and plastics to fill in gaps. Wished I had Play-Doh for quick filler. Still found more gaps hours later that I had missed (e.g. door sill).

KPIX-5 News had only television coverage I could find. Of this link’s 2:15 min. video, see 0:58 for: unhealthy air starts at 35 and Monday’s air quality was often almost off the charts measuring 114 at 6 PM. (Being sensitive, I still smell the air as bad.) Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 12, 2013 at 7:59 pm

I'm in downtown Menlo right now & the smoke scent is palpable. Where I live in EPA, it's not this discernible.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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