Philadelphia’s Scrap Yard Task Force

A ROUND NOVEMBER 2003, PHILADELPHIA, PENNsylvania, put together a task force to inspect auto salvage and scrap yard facilities. The main focus was on yards that did not comply with local, state, and federal regulations.

Most business owners use the term “scrap,” not “junk,” because 75 percent of material from automobiles is recycled. The Scrap Yard Task Force (SYTF) was created by Philip R. Goldsmith, the managing director who initiated the program. The two people selected to set up the task force were John Hadalski from the managing director’s office and Christopher Thomas of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Hadalski and Thomas compiled a list of city, state, and federal agencies, requesting a representative from each to discuss the best way to bring scrap yards into compliance with relevant codes, laws, and regulations.

They notified representatives from the city, state, and federal governments who had concerns with public health and the environment. Knowing the list would be lengthy, Hadalski and Thomas selected agencies and departments that were heavily affected; this list included the Philadelphia Water Department, Philadelphia Fire Department, Licenses and Inspections (L&I), police department, health department, commerce department, and law department.


John Higgins, director of the commercial and industrial unit of L&I, Inspector William Wolstenholme, and I were the representatives for the Philadelphia Fire Code.

Philadelphia adopted the 2003 International Fire Code, added local amendments and regulations, and called it the “2004 Philadelphia Fire Code.” This code has been updated to the 2007 Philadelphia Fire Code.

In Philadelphia, L&I enforce this code; the fire department does not have the authority to assess fines or close down a business for fire code violations. Fortunately, the fire department and L&I have worked together as a team for a long time. During a court hearing on a scrap yard, L&I and the fire department testified on behalf of the city. The judge stated, “Whatever the lieutenant wants, the lieutenant gets.” This example of interdepartmental cooperation is essential for an effective task force.

In defense of the licensed and law-abiding scrap yards, Philadelphia appreciates their business. They remove abandoned, unsafe, and possibly leaking vehicles from city streets. These vehicles average the equivalent of 20 gallons of flammables and combustibles and are capable of burning. We must not forget the automobile tire; one tire contains a minimum of 2 1/2 gallons of petroleum products.

Car fires involve gasoline, motor oil, transmission fluid, and brake fluid. Vehicle batteries contain sulfuric acid and lead housed in plastic. At five tires per car and 2 1/2 gallons per tire, this adds 12 1/2 gallons of burning rubber, toluene, benzene, and sulfur to the environment. If it is decided to let a pile of 10,000 tires burn, this creates up to a minimum of 25,000 gallons of runoff oil. This must be contained to minimize its impact on soil and water.

Enforcing the Philadelphia Fire Code requires a basic understanding of the terminology. Table 1 is from Chapter 34 of the 2004 Philadelphia Fire Code and presents definitions of flammable and combustible. There is a distinction, and violations must be written precisely or they are unenforceable, so memorize the chart. You may have to explain the difference between flammable and combustible in court or during your promotional oral.

Philadelphia Fire Code F-105.6.17 requires an operational permit for the following:

  • To store, handle, or use Class II or Class IIIA liquids in excess of 25 gallons in a building or in excess of 60 gallons outside a building, except for fuel oil used in connection with oil-burning equipment.
  • To store, handle, or use a Class I liquid in excess of five gallons inside a building or 10 gallons outside of a building.

Gasoline is a flammable; if you are storing more than five gallons inside your garage, you need an operational permit. A permit is required to store more than 10 gallons outside.

The following are exceptions:

  • An operational permit is not required when gasoline is stored in a fuel tank or, in the opinion of the fire code official, is safe.
  • An operational permit is not required for the storage or use of paints, varnishes, or similar flammables for a period of not more than 30 days.


The storage of flammables, combustibles, and tires is a concern to the Philadelphia Fire Department. Since November 2003, when the SYTF formed, we have inspected approximately 80 scrap yards. The number of inspections is approximately 250, because some scrap yards require second, third, and fourth inspections for compliance. There were also a few that required a court visit. Initially, almost every scrap yard failed because of the way they collected and stored their flammable/combustible liquids and tires (photo 1). Some yards let gravity drain the fluids and mother earth absorb or wash it away. This was a reason for the creation of the SYTF.

(1) The owner called this his secondary containment. (Photo by author.)

Essington Avenue, in southwest Philadelphia, had about 20 scrap yards. In April 2004, the Philadelphia Fire Department was concerned about fluids leaking into the ground and the distance of the water supply to the scrap yard in the farthest corner of the property; we estimated 200 feet up the driveway, 500 feet to the front of the scrap yard, and 200 feet to the back. The fire code states in 2508.1: “Water supply – A water supply shall be arranged such that any part of the storage yard can be reached by using not more than (NMT) 500 feet of hose.” This yard was well over that and needed a fire preplan.

On further investigation, the task force found a tire pile approximately 150 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 15 to 20 feet high hidden in the rear. Estimates of 200,000 to 250,000 tires were being stored (photo 2). Could it get any worse? Yes, it could.

(2) Essington Avenue tire pile, April 2004. (Photo by John Murphy, Philadelphia Police Helo Unit.)

Aerial photos showed this tire pile was approximately 300 feet from an aboveground storage tank containing 42,000 barrels of combustibles, or home heating oil (photo 3). The photos made clear the severity of this situation. The SYTF discovered the Essington tire pile; removal took nearly two years. Because the task force did its job, it possibly prevented the worst-case scenario of the tire pile burning and extending to the above-ground storage tank farm. The task force saved the city millions in fighting a large fire and possibly saved the lives of firefighters.

(3) The Essington Avenue tire pile was only 300 feet from a potentially combustible aboveground storage tank. (Photo by John Murphy, Philadelphia Police Helo Unit.)

Remember, this is one of 20 scrap yards on one property. The fire department; L&I; and the other city, state, and federal agencies had to act fast. Remember to document everything; more importantly, take as many photos as possible.

If the scrap yard didn’t comply within the set time frame, the SYTF included representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection (PA DEP). It represents the laws of the state; therefore, its penalties are more severe.

The Philadelphia SYTF put together a workshop for area scrap recyclers. The workshop was presented in June 2004, May 2005, and May 2007. The one-day workshop was an opportunity for scrap yard owners to have all their questions answered. Representatives from all city, state, and federal agencies set up display tables and were available for questions. Some representatives gave a 30-minute presentation to answer general questions but were still available for questions afterward.

The task force was not trying to put people out of business, but some businesses were damaging the surrounding environment and refused to cooperate. There are more than 300 scrap yards in Philadelphia, so we still have some work to do. We might find another tire pile. The only way to be sure is to look.

Through the process of creating the task force, we have learned the following:

  • Do not try putting together a program this big unless you have the support of the city. Having the managing director collaborate with the task force during its infancy gave this unit time to establish credibility.
  • Without teamwork and cooperation between departments and agencies, such an endeavor will become a waste of time, with reports going nowhere. If a business goes to court and the judge sees that the fire department and L&I are concerned about the safety and health of the citizens and firefighters, then the courts will do everything in their power to get the business to comply.
  • Understanding the code is a large task. It is not user friendly, and there are many exceptions. Don’t get frustrated; code work is a full-time job. One or two years of training is needed to understand when and where the code applies. Getting out and enforcing the code is the only way to learn.

For more information, visit

RON R. RAGEN is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, Haz-mat Administrative Unit. He graduated from Holy Family University with a bachelor’s degree in fire science and public safety.

No posts to display