Regulators Criticized for Sims Fire in Redwood City

Critics say local and state regulators fail to penalize companies that pollute; since 2007 there have been 6 fires at metal shredding facilities in the Bay Area but only one fine was issued.

Tuesday morning’s fire at Sims Metal Management in Redwood City is the company’s second fire in five weeks. During a rare tour of the facility, NBC Bay Area questioned general manager Jim Banigan about the regulation of metal shredding facilities and the allegations from critics that the industry is allowed to self-regulate.

He declined to answer, referring questions to safety director Melisa Cohen.

“You know, that’s not my sphere. If you want to ask my about the machine, I will tell you about the machine if you want to talk about regulatory agencies that’s Melisa’s function,” Banigan said.

MORE: Metal Plant Fire Impacting Bay Area Air Quality

NBC Bay Area asked Cohen to respond to public concerns into what appears to be few consequences following major fires, including the November 10th fire that caused a 17-hour shelter in place warning for communities around the facility in Redwood City.

“We can focus on penalties but penalties are not going to change the organization. For instance, a $20,000 penalty is not going to motivate an industry to do something,” Cohen said, referring to the small fine Sims was issued by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in 2007 for another fire at the facility.

Cohen insisted her company and other major facilities can be trusted to improve safety themselves. “We invested four and a half million dollars in the improvements we made, specifically to improve capability to fight fires,” Cohen said.

MORE: Bay Area Air Quality District Under Fire

But critics say it’s unrealistic to expect industry to self-regulate. They ask why companies such as Sims are not held accountable with serious penalties from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Both agencies oversee the metal recycling industry.

“Both departments cover this exact area sand they should work together to make sure Bay Area residents are protected,” Daniel Palay of advocacy group Consumer Watchdog said. Palay said regulators are not exercising their full authority.

“They don’t have to be reactionary. They have the resources to ensure that these things don’t happen,” Palay said.

MORE: Redwood City Recycling Fire Sparks Concerns

BAAQMD issued a public nuisance violation to Sims for the fire five weeks ago. No monetary penalty has been announced in connection to that violation yet. The DTSC issued a statement to NBC Bay Area that read in part, “It is possible that additional equipment upgrades may be appropriate at the Sims’ facility,” but has not indicated whether it will force Sims to upgrade its safety equipment.

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