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Fires thrive along with exports of scrap

Chunichi Shimbun

Firefighters and the Japan Coast Guard have been plagued with a growing number of blazes breaking out among piles of mixed scrap in harbors and on board ships, with the most recent one occurring in Mikawa port in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture.

Exports of items such as car batteries, discarded home electrical appliances and residual oil, which are believed to be the reason for the fires, is supposed to be regulated by law.

Putting out this kind of fire is both arduous and time-consuming, and affects transport facilities as well.

Piles of air conditioners, fans, car navigation devices, rice cookers and other mixed scrap form “mountains” that sometimes reach 10 meters high on the dock at Mikawa port. Most of this scrap is bound for China.

Two blazes broke out last month. One occurred Nov. 2, originating in the cargo hold of a freighter docked in the port.

For eight hours the sky was choked with dark smoke as firefighters fought the blaze, and some 40 percent of the 1,200 tons of mixed scrap in the vessel was burned.

Then on Nov. 11, a fire broke out in a pile on the dock, melting 450 tons of scrap. It took more than five hours to completely extinguish the fire.

According to the Toyohashi Fire Department, 25 fire engines and 139 firefighters were mobilized Nov. 2, while 25 engines and 198 firefighters were deployed Nov. 11. Deployments of this size are five times the size of the typical house fire.

To douse this kind of blaze, firefighters have to use cranes to clear the pile little by little.

“It takes a lot of time and manpower, and it is a tremendous burden on firefighters,” a fire official said.

At least 16 fires related to mixed scrap broke out in ports or onboard ships nationwide in 2012, according to the Center for Material Cycles and Waste Management Research of the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Two fires occurred in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, which took a total of 43 hours to extinguish. They also caused traffic disruptions on the Hanshin Expressway.

Authorities have yet to identify what started many of the fires, including the two last month in Toyohashi.

However, experiments conducted by the center show that lithium batteries used in electrical appliances may have been the culprit. Another possibility is that car batteries among the scrap short-circuited and caught fire.

“The plastic and rubber found in discarded appliances as well as the residual oil on stoves help these fires spread and then eventually create the large amount of smoke” they typically produce, said Atsushi Terazono, an official at the center.

Mixed scrap is mostly steel, but it also includes nonferrous metals such as bronze and aluminium, not to mention plastic.

More than 90 percent of the scrap is exported to China, where the various items are dismantled and sorted before being resold to metal refining manufacturers.

Exports to China have increased since the 1990s. The center estimates that around 1.3 million to 2 million tons of scrap is exported each year.

This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Nov. 30.