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Sifting through the ashes

Investigators still haven't determined the cause of a junkyard fire in Winter Springs.

Investigators still haven't determined the cause of a junkyard fire in Winter Springs.

Sarah Wilson

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Mark Caruso watched as clouds of thick black smoke and flames flowed from the industrial property across the street from his Winter Springs home in January.

Caruso looked on in awe of the blaze just long enough to realize — and smell — what was burning from the 419 Metal and Auto Recycling Center, tucked in between Layer Elementary School and acres of wetlands off of State Road 419.

“I could feel the heat of the fire. I could smell the oil, gasoline and rubber burning,” Caruso said. “It literally got to the point the point where I packed up my two children and left the area.”

Around 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 29, Seminole County Fire and Rescue arrived at the 419 Metal and Auto Recycling Center, where a 25-foot-tall, 15-foot-wide stack of crushed cars and scrap metal had caught ablaze.

Reports indicate the fire raged for nearly 12 hours as firefighters worked to prevent the fire from spreading to other nearby heaps of scrap metal on the lot. One firefighter and a civilian were treated for minor injuries following the fire, which was eventually extinguished at 10 a.m. the following day.

Environmental impact?

The greatest concern for Caruso, and other local Winter Springs residents following the incident, is the environmental impact of the thick black smoke that filled the area around the site and forced the closure of State Road 419.

Shortly after Caruso reported the smell of chemicals burning from the fire, he placed a phone call to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection fearing the impact of smoke on his neighborhood. He said he has previously considered calling DEP regarding smells and sounds coming from the recycling center almost daily but the fire pushed him to finally take action.

Lisa Kelley, ombudsman for DEP, said investigators for the department reported to the scene following the fire and found no evidence of environmental concern warranting immediate action. She said, however, the department is looking into any further ramifications of the fire, a report that should be filed later this month.

String of violations

DEP records show that 419 Metal and Auto Recycling Center, owned by Bart Phillips, a member of the Winter Springs Planning and Zoning Board, has been issued citations from the DEP previously — most commonly for hazardous waste storage and management violations. As of June 10, 2010, Phillips was shown to be up to date on fee payments and in compliance, following a routine inspection of the property.

The most recent four violations were reported corrected and fees of $27,040 paid for as of the June report. Phillips says the number of violations he’s received are to be expected when it comes to the type of business he is running — recycling, compounding and shredding metal and cars.

Kelley says this is partially true, that businesses dealing with hazardous waste storage are more likely to rack up these types of violations.

“These are violations that we would typically expect to find at these facilities,” she said. She also cautioned, however, that compliance inspections and the violations issued in regards to them only tell half the story.

“They only offer a snapshot of what is going on that particular day,” she said. “Just because they’re complying today doesn’t mean they’re complying tomorrow.”

Owner suspects arson

At 419 Metal and Auto Recycling Center on Saturday, the only lingering reminder of the fire is the few brick-red car remnants, ionized by the heat of the fire, poking out from one of the many mounds of scrap metal on the property. Though the environmental investigation is still ongoing, the cause of the fire remains unknown. Seminole County Fire Prevention staff assistant Connie Kreinbring said there is currently no further investigation toward the cause of the fire.

So how does a heap of untouched crushed cars, made of primarily steel, ignite after business hours? “It doesn’t,” Phillips says.

He scoffs at the rumor that he lit the fire himself.

“Yeah, you know because everyone likes to light a fire that could potentially put them out of business,” he said.

He claims another type of foul play — arson.

“Someone set it on fire — there is no other option,” he said.

Beefing up security

The center had security cameras installed near where the fire began, but they were struck by lightning months before the blaze and were not in working condition, Phillips said. He suspects someone set the fire because someone was angry about his plans to expand with new locations. But that claim will likely never see justice due to a lack of evidence.

Though the case regarding the cause of the fire is relatively closed, Mark Caruso, as well as others in the Winter Springs community, are not prepared to let the state of the center’s everyday practices go overlooked. Many of them, he said, are unhappy that the center exists in their community.

“I’m worried about my children’s health,” Caruso said. “I’m prepared to start calling the EPA every day until something is done.”