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Overheated Metal Likely Sparked Scrap Plant Fire

A scrap metal company that has had two major fires in the past six months plans to review its procedures to to prevent future fires, an attorney said Tuesday.

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — A scrap metal company that has had two major fires in the past six months plans to review its procedures to to prevent future fires, an attorney said Tuesday.

Piles of junked cars and other objects went up in flames and thick, black smoke Monday afternoon at Atlantic Scrap and Processing, located between Interstate 95 and U.S. Highway 301 on Wal Pat Road. Crews from 17 fire departments sprayed water on the intense flames for hours Monday, and firefighters continued to monitor the smoldering remains of the fire Tuesday, waiting for it to burn itself out.

No injuries were reported from the fire, but its size prompted Johnston County officials to call for mandatory water conservation measures by county residents. Conserving water would ensure firefighters have enough water in case they were called to another large fire, officials said.

Atlantic Scrap and Processing shreds about 600 tons of metal each day at the 10-year-old plant and sells the metal to steel mills and foundries.

Company attorney Steve Earp said a piece of metal likely overheated during the shredding process, flew out of the equipment and sparked the fire.

"It was probably sitting next to a piece of seat cushion or something until finally it smoldered and, poof, up it went," Earp said.

Smithfield Mayor Norman Johnson suspects employees tried to fight the fire themselves and waited too long to make the call.

“There was some empty fire extinguishers around where the fire started,” Johnson said. "I think if if they would've called immediately it could've been much smaller."

However, Earp said he believes the 911 call and the efforts to fight the fire happened at the same time.

“Once fire gets going in one of these piles it's very difficult to put out," he said.

The company has no hazardous materials at the site, which the state inspects routinely, Earp said.

The state Division of Air Quality cited the company in 2004 for using some equipment more than a permitted level, but there have been no other complaints against the plant, division spokesman Tom Mather said.

State environmental regulators said monitoring of the air and water around the plant since Monday has shown no harmful chemicals that would impact the health of nearby residents.

Monday's fire is the second time the scrap yard has caught fire in six months. A fire burned more than 20 hours in October 2006.

Although company officials believe they have adequate safeguards for fires -- two retention ponds for water runoff and a filter system are on the site -- Earp said they want to review their processes to see if any changes are warranted.

"We don't understand why it would happen even once at this facility," Earp said. "We want to take a really hard look at everything we do and figure out what we can do better."

Insurance adjusters will visit the plant Wednesday to assess the damage. Much of the burned metal can still be recycled, he said.

The company plans to resume operations within the few days, he said.

But DeWayne West, director of Johnston County Emergency Services, said he's not sure whether any changes made by the company will prevent future fires.

"I think that still remains to be seen," West said. "You're grinding metal. You're shredding metal. There's lots of sparks."

Smithfield leaders say they understand the nature of the business, but they want new safety plans.

“This is not good, this is just not acceptable,” Johnson said. “We need to do something. They will cooperate, I'm sure.”

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Scott Mason, Reporter
Robert Meikle, Photographer
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