Meet the 'Scrap King': controversial scrap yard CEO visits Saint John

After months of explosions in Saint John, Herbert Black —74-year-old billionaire, art collector and CEO of American Iron and Metal — arrived with an entourage at City Hall on Friday afternoon.

City, port seeking resolution after dozens of explosions

'I'm not sure they're impacted the way they're claiming they're impacted,' said American Iron and Metal CEO Herb Black of the recent spate of explosions in Saint John. (Graham Thompson / CBC)

After months of explosions in Saint John, Herbert Black — 74-year-old billionaire, art collector and CEO of American Iron and Metal — arrived with an entourage at City Hall on Friday afternoon. 

Black, who some have called the "Scrap King of Montreal," met with Saint John Mayor Don Darling and Port Saint John officials to discuss a way forward after the Department of Environment issued a stop-work order to the company.

I think people don't understand the difference between an explosion and a vibration. - Herbert Black, American Iron and Metal CEO

The order gave AIM 60 days to submit a plan to eliminate explosions and the impact of excessive noise.

Black said misinformation has been circulating about the operation.

"When you read some of the things that have been printed in the newspaper — I am not a second Donald Trump and I'm not going to say it's fake news, but I'm going to say it's incorrect news … people are giving you false information and you are taking it at their word and you are printing it."

American Iron and Metal is capable of processing thousands of tonnes of scrap daily. Junked cars make up the majority of the material, and they can contain hazardous materials that have caused explosions. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"I think people don't understand the difference between an explosion and a vibration."

He initially disputed that Saint Johners have heard explosions and suggested they were exaggerating the impact.

"There might be some people that really have a problem, and I would be more than happy to meet with them and to discuss it with them and find a solution."

Unique explosion problem 

The American Iron and Metal building opened on port property on the west side in 2008 and processes as many as 250,000 tonnes of scrap annually following an expansion of the shredder in 2011. (Julia Wright / CBC)

After a heated conversation between Black and city officials over whether the news media would be allowed to attend, the meeting was held in private.

Afterward, Darling said the parties will try to work together.

Black said American Iron and Metal is a "victim" of the explosions, "not the creator of them."

AIM signed a 40-year-lease for its Saint John scrapyard with the Port of Saint John in 2002. It's the first major lease the Port had landed since the 1980s. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The Saint John yard shreds and recycles old vehicles and other metal scraps into marketable metals.AIM's main suppliers are auto parts recycling centres from New Brunswick and some from P.E.I., Nova Scotia, and Maine.

Black said hazardous materials are sometimes "camouflaged" in the thousands of cars that can be processed daily.

"We're working to find out exactly who is shipping what, and we've tried hard but there are a lot of pieces of the puzzle," he said.

Black said Saint John's issue with explosions appears to be unique among his operations. Of AIM's 10 shredders, "I don't have the problem I have here with any of them," he said. 

"I do have explosions from time to time. I have never had a shredder operate for a year without an explosion or two or three. It just doesn't happen."

'Nothing is perfect in life'

AIM upgraded its Saint John shredder in 2011 at a cost of $30 million — increasing its output by roughly 500 per cent.  

"I feel very confident that there won't be any problems in terms of dust or noise or other situations," Black told CBC Information Morning Saint John at the time.

Saint John Mayor Don Darling and Black 'are committed to working together in an open fashion,' Darling said. (Graham Thompson / CBC)

"And if there are, even if it's within the law and it makes people uncomfortable, I'll be the first one to correct it."

AIM's approval to operate certificate says it is the company's responsibility to inspect the material that gets shredded.

With 1,000 tonnes coming through the yard daily, Black said, things can fall through the cracks

There's such a thing as human error. They go for a coffee break, or they have to go to the bathroom, or something happens in between. Nothing is perfect in life.- Herbert Black

 "There's such a thing as human error. They go for a coffee break, or they have to go to the bathroom, or something happens in between. Nothing is perfect in life."

Darling said that during the meeting, the port, city and AIM reached an agreement to "get going right away to get us to a better place."

"I'm a believer that we can have a coexistence between industry … and citizens quality of life."

$5 million lawsuit in Quebec

This isn't the first time Black has dealt with complaints about his operations.

When Black started a metal recycling plant at the former dump in Levis, Que., in 2005, the $25 million project was met with opposition by local environmental groups.

They alleged the company lacked the proper permits and was polluting the nearby Etchemin River. The opponents managed to halt work on the plant by getting an injunction.

Black sued a group of Quebec environmentalists who objected to the installation of a metal shredder in a dump in Levis, Que., in 2005. (Graham Thompson / CBC)

Black then filed a $5 million lawsuit for what he called "malicious, reckless and abusive efforts" to stop the project.

The defendants alleged this response was a SLAPP suit — or strategic lawsuit against public participation — a tactic sometimes used by companies with deep financial reserves. Black denied the allegation.

SLAPP actions are designed to intimidate and silence opponents by dragging them through lengthy and expensive court proceedings until they abandon their cause.

The matter was settled out of court in 2007.

American Iron and Metal has no plans to relocate its Saint John facility, Black said. (Julia Wright / CBC)

'No flame and no fire'

On Friday, Black said all shredding activity has stopped for now at the west side operation — and AIM is working on a "program" to penalize suppliers who ship explosive material.

"If people don't ship the proper material and it would explode, that we could go back on them, we could find them, we could penalize them, we could shut them down, or we could do something," he said.

He also reiterated that the blasts have "no flame and no fire to it."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Julia Wright is a reporter based in Saint John. She has been with the CBC since 2016.