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Trash Fire: The Collapse of Philadelphia
Philly’s out-of-control trash and junkyard problems encapsulate the city's biggest issue: it's governed by miserable people who hate their jobs
About a year ago, Nick Russo sent me a note. San Francisco was falling apart, he said, but the attention it received was disproportionate. Because of the city’s uniquely high concentration of influential social media personalities, there was a national consensus it was uniquely broken. But it was not. It is still not, which is something I both agree with and often write about — every city in this country is dying. What I did not realize, however, was how bad it was in places like Philadelphia.
Trash, violence, six-story flaming tire piles in junkyards dotting the city. Nick, a Philly-based reporter, guests today for Pirate Wires with an incredible account of incompetence from what may be one of the worst disasters of local politics in America.
“I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time. I’ll be happy when I’m not mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff.”—Jim Kenney, current mayor of Philadelphia, on Independence Day, 2022
On September 27 of this year, a massive three-alarm fire erupted in a North Philadelphia junkyard. The 15-second video below shows passengers on an inbound train passing the fire, surprised they could feel its heat through the train’s windows.
Three-alarm fires can require upwards of 60 firefighters, five to 10 command staff, 10 fire trucks, multiple air units, a supplies vehicle to support several firefighter shifts, and a media relations vehicle to deal with press. The 9/27 fire marked the fourth time Philly’s skyline had been shrouded in smoke from a scrapyard blaze this year. At least three of these fires were big enough to be categorized as three-alarm.
There are more than 40 licensed junkyards sprinkled throughout Philly’s poorer neighborhoods. Noisy, ugly, and pollutive, they collect mostly automotive waste like clunkers and spent tires. A 2018 report by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission called the junkyards “receivers of illegal scrap material, sources of revenue for the local drug culture, and generators of rats and other vermin.” They’re notorious for flouting regulations designed to prevent catastrophic fires like the one in September.
State and local officials have known about Philly’s junkyard problem for decades. In 2003, the EPA’s regional office assembled a Scrapyard Task Force (STF), composed of the five state and local agencies that’d previously been working piecemeal to enforce compliance. Since then, the STF has cited all but four of the city’s licensed scrapyards at least once, including one of them over 125 times, and they’ve shut down between 10 and 15 serial violators.
That may sound impressive, but for as long as it’s existed the STF has been largely unable to fulfill its mission: to bring Philadelphia’s scrapyards into compliance with existing regulations. One such regulation stipulates that the height of any tire pile be no higher than 10 feet. On November 3 of last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspected Delaware Valley Recycling’s yard, a scrapyard along the banks of the Schuykill River. It passed inspection. Six days later, there was a fire there, and it grew out of control because it was fueled by tire piles as high as six stories.
How the yard passed inspection is unclear, but even if the DEP had issued a violation, it’s plausible nothing would’ve come of it. For example, in 2017, a junkyard in Philadelphia’s Kensington section that had already racked up almost 70 citations from the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) in the previous 10 years got a visit from the STF, who found more violations, and promptly did nothing. A representative told reporters that their inspectors found “nothing imminently dangerous.” A year later, the yard looked like this:
With the help of legendary local drumline Positive Movement, led by Elmo, this blaze became known online as the Great Philadelphia Trash Fire of 2018.
This video holds a place in Philly’s crowded content hall of fame. But I, for one, would happily trade such clown world entertainment for competent municipal leaders capable of preventing the next apocalyptic trash fire. Unfortunately, effective enforcement requires manpower, and the STF has the capacity for just four inspections per month. There are over 40 licensed junkyards in the city, but some estimates that include smaller yards operating off the books put the number at over 120. Given that a yard can go from passing inspection to erupting into flames in just six days—as presumably happened at the Great Philadelphia Trash Fire of 2018—monthly inspections would be far more appropriate. But for this to happen, STF would need to multiply its capacity by at least 10, if not 30. And even when it does discover violations, the STF lacks the muscle to coerce owners into compliance. So noncompliance is the status quo—meaning it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, except when the junkyards burn.
And this is where one infuriating component of the city’s status quo collides with another. Philadelphia, like a lot of cities around the country, is in the midst of a major municipal staffing shortage: L&I is short on code inspectors and the Police Department is short on officers. Citywide, roughly one in seven positions sits unfilled. And so far, one of the city leadership’s few1 responses to the staffing crisis has been an October 2022 announcement that they will pay an outside firm $200,000 to complete a pay scale study… by the summer of 2023. How this will take a team of professionals eight months is beyond me. And pretending this is the best we can do is an insult to the intelligence of every Philadelphian. Of course we can do better. We simply lack the willpower.
Effeteness, like that displayed by our leaders' response to Philly's junkyard problem, is sucking the life from our city. It finds its most perfect expression in our mayor, Jim Kenney—Eeyore incarnate—who, after two police officers were struck by stray gunfire on the Fourth of July this year, told his constituents:
“I’m waiting for something bad to happen all the time. I’ll be happy when I’m not Mayor, and I can enjoy some stuff.”
Philadelphia is governed by miserable people who hate their jobs, who like the idea of power but can’t bear the burden of responsibility. Our staffing shortage and our junkyard fires expose this reality, because both issues remain unsolved only for lack of political will. But perhaps the most solvable problem of all—the most basic municipal service imaginable—is keeping trash from piling up in the street. And it’s here that Philly’s void of leadership is most visible.
Philadelphia’s spontaneously combusting scrapyards are also hotbeds for illegal dumping. According to a report conducted by our now-extinct2 Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, residents have long complained that junkyards encourage short dumping—dumping waste in the middle of a street, sidewalk, vacant lot, etc.—in areas around the yards. But the problem is by no means confined to areas around junkyards. Throughout Philly, mostly in our poorest neighborhoods, junk haulers unload piles of construction debris, tires, and household furniture on residential streets to avoid legal dumping fees.
A good rule of thumb for municipal leaders: if children in your city have to stumble over piles of garbage on their way to school, you need to be better at your job.
In a functional city, business-savvy junk haulers would face a difficult choice between legal and illegal dumping. The former would be low-risk, low-reward: no chance of facing criminal charges or civil penalties, but modest profits. The latter would be high-risk, high-reward: heftier profits, but the possibility of steep fines or worse. In Philadelphia, though, the main question facing junk haulers is: why the hell wouldn’t you dump illegally?
Observe: back in May, our Streets Department Commissioner told our City Council that, in 2021, his cleanup crews removed over 14,000,000 pounds of debris and 83,000 tires from over 1,300 dumpsites citywide. Many of these sites were dumping hotspots where haulers unloaded junk piles weekly or even daily. In other words, untold thousands of illegal dumping violations were committed in Philly last year. But only 220 of those incidents were assigned for investigation. 13 led to civil penalties, four led to issued warrants, and one produced an arrest. One!
The fact is, if you dump a giant pile of trash on the street of a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia, you will not face consequences. Full stop. This basic failure of municipal governance leaves residents to deal with constant eyesores, public health risks from vermin and insects that breed in the filth, depressed property values, and sometimes even two-alarm short-dumped-tire fires.
Just like our scrapyard issue, the city is well aware of the trash problem and has some basic structures in place for addressing it. The Police Department has an Environmental Crimes Unit (ECU) for whom priority number one is investigating illegal dumping incidents. They’re assisted in this task by a fleet of nearly 200 Streets Department surveillance cameras and three full-time employees whose only job is to monitor those cameras. And, hell, they’ve even got our notoriously soft-on-crime DA, Larry Krasner, publicly begging them to bring him more cases to prosecute.
The one thing they don’t have, however, is—you guessed it—manpower. In a city with over 14,000,000 pounds of trash dumped on the street annually, the ECU is staffed by a total of two people. In Krasner’s words: “You can’t have an environmental unit that’s only two people and expect them to generate the work of 10.” Here we have our soft-on-crime, tough-on-cops DA implying, at least as it pertains to illegal dumping, that we need more cops! Alas, the Police Department has 500 vacancies and another 800 out on (often phony) injury claims, putting us square in the middle of the staffing shortage, 1,300 officers shy of full capacity.
And so we’ve come full circle. Until this daunting but relatively straightforward problem of municipal governance—our staffing shortage—is resolved, our junkyards will go on burning and our streets will go on drowning in debris.
A question posed by a self-described Marxist, Humanist, ethereal bisexual recently flitted across my Twitter feed:
I cringed, but clicked into the replies. Frankly, the question has only one acceptable answer—namely, mine—and to my knowledge, none of the 800+ reply guys got it right. The correct answer is that every American under age 30 needs to care about local politics. PW chief Michael Solana put it well in this Pomp interview:
Solana: America could become great in ways that are inconceivable right now.
Pomp: What do we have to do?
Solana: I think we have to care about local politics, honestly.
Pomp: Okay, explain.
Solana: I think that we have really abandoned, like, basic shit. We have internalized a sense we’re not responsible for the world around us. We have a transient, rootless elite with a lack of loyalty to place. Smart people are not engaged where they are. Every city I drove through on a cross-country road trip was covered in trash. Once you internalize that this is normal, that’s the end. So you have to start there. You have to make where you physically are right now a better place.
We’re living in an era of basic civic dysfunction wrought by decades of rule by an ever-more-effete elite. This pathetic status quo has spawned reactionary movements both IRL and online. Strongman MAGA types are largely a reaction to the perception of national weakness. So are scores of anonymous Twitter accounts—Bronze Age Pervert leading the way, cultish figures like Raw Egg Nationalist following suit. But a great democracy can’t be imposed from the top down; national politics is for now a futile front. Online subcultures and dietary tweaks won’t move the needle either: we can’t raw-egg-slonk our way to national vitality. And this presents a problem, because saving America from an unhinged enemy sounds cool, as does sculpting your body in the image of Achilles. Scrutinizing your local streets department’s every move… not so much.
But we can become great in ways that are inconceivable right now. Thrusting yourself wholeheartedly into the life of your community is the antidote to effeteness. Great citizens give rise to great cities, great cities to great nations. We need to make local politics cool again—and along the way, burn this parasitic, apathetic governance culture to the ground.
I'm aware of three other policy prescriptions meant to address the staffing shortage: (1) The PD is now allowing civilians to staff positions that don't involve official police work, but there's a big catch: thanks to the police union, the department can't force officers currently occupying those non-police roles to transition to traditional police work. Those officers can only be replaced if they leave the force or volunteer to change roles. (2) A city councilwoman recently put forward a bill to modify the requirement for municipal hiring, so that new hires only have to move to the city within six months of starting. Theoretically, this enables the city to hire from a wider pool of candidates. But many are skeptical it will help resolve the staffing crisis, because we don't suffer from a dearth of potential candidates. (3) In June, City Council approved funding to create a new centralized recruiting unit. The director of our human resources department told reporters the four-man unit "could be launched this year." And, as far as I can tell, that's the last we've heard of it. So, yet another lame, low-urgency "response" to the staffing crisis.
These policy prescriptions, in my view, are good for keeping up appearances, but not good for getting our 4,000 vacant positions filled promptly.