Months before a fire erupted at a Port Richmond junkyard, Philadelphia city inspectors made the right calls to protect the neighborhood. Since February, they had been in Common Pleas Court pressing the owner to clean up the yard.
The city was worried about the safety of towering stacks of tires and the storage of combustible materials in the yard at Somerset and Tulip Streets, staff writer Meghan Bobrowsky reported.
But the citations and court case weren't enough to stop the July 10 fire, which raged for hours, sending up clouds of black smoke so dense firefighters said they could barely see. It is still unknown if the conditions L&I cited caused the fire, which remains under investigation. Officials, however, say the high stacks of cars and tires, with narrow lanes between them, hindered firefighters' efforts to douse the blaze. And, they noted that all the water used to suppress the flames made the stacks even more unstable.
What's very clear is that this fire put the entire city at risk. The Fire Department called in more than two dozen companies from every corner of the city. It called in off-duty personnel to cover stations so that the rest of Philadelphia would be protected. One firefighter was injured but has since returned to active duty.
So after all that effort, imagine the shock of city officials when the owner quickly reopened the junkyard and began accepting more junk without clearing up his violations.
That was enough for L&I and the Law Department to pull out their most powerful weapon – an injunction to cease operations. Judge Paula Patrick rightly agreed and shut down the business until violations are corrected.
The city's decisive action is a sign that it is getting smarter and tougher about enforcing safety codes. L&I and the Law Department are seeking maximum fines and penalties in the most serious cases, hoping to send the message that Philadelphia won't tolerate dangerous conditions in our neighborhoods. When assessing those fines, judges should consider the safety of the people who live in life-threatening conditions. Those conditions are not only impacted by the 40 other junkyards in the city, the majority of which have violations, but the fact that in an old industrial city like Philadelphia, sites loaded with harmful plastics, metals, and chemicals exist in close proximity to heavily populated neighborhoods.
The city's long-beleaguered L&I has increased the ranks of its inspectors from 103 in 2013 to 163 this year. It created the new position of director of enforcement to stay on top of violations and make sure that cases get to court. To find the most slippery violators, L&I hired researchers who sift through tangles of aliases and inaccurate addresses some owners use to hide from enforcers. And, the city is bundling cases against large property owners so judges get a fuller picture of the worst offenders.