Fire at Schnitzer Steel sends potentially dangerous smoke over Oakland

A fire erupted Wednesday afternoon in a pile of scrap metal at Schnitzer Steel, a recycling facility near the Port of Oakland, sending a plume of smoke over a large area of the city and other parts of the East Bay.

The Oakland Fire Department was on scene quickly and able to contain the flames to a single pile of debris, according to the city. OFD used three fire engines and was assisted by San Francisco and Alameda, which loaned their fire boats, to pour water on the smoldering metal.

Bay Area Air Quality Management District inspectors are investigating the fire and smoke and advised the public to follow guidance by local health officials. The district said smoke from the fire is expected to impact Oakland, San Leandro, Fremont, and Alameda, and possibly reach as far south as San Jose tonight.

The air district is advising that people downwind protect themselves by avoiding exposure. “If possible, stay inside with windows and doors closed until smoke levels subside. Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside,” the district wrote in an advisory.

Oakland residents downwind of the fire expressed concerns over social media about the smoke. People as far away as Castro Valley reported a “toxic” smell in the air.

Schnitzer Steel’s scrap piles have caught fire before, including in 2018 when a fire sent a cloud of black smoke into Bay Area skies, and in 2010 and 2009.

After the 2018 fire, state inspectors tested samples of burned residue and found high levels of lead, copper, and zinc.

According to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, there are at least 18 daycare centers, 10 parks, eight schools, four senior centers, and two hospitals located within a mile of Schnitzer’s scrap yard.

Schnitzer Steel sorts and shreds a variety of metals, including junked cars, and the yard has emitted harmful particulate matter into the atmosphere during its normal operations. In 2012, the Alameda County District Attorney started investigating Schnitzer for emitting lead, cadmium, and zinc into the air. This particulate matter contaminated nearby neighborhoods. The DA, state Attorney General, and Department of Toxic Substances Control sued the company and settled the case in 2021 after Schnitzer agreed to pay $4.1 million.

Headquartered in Portland, Oregon, Schnitzer Steel recently changed its name to Radius Recycling. Radius has 54 similar scrap yards across the United States.

Schnitzer and company executives have been major contributors to political campaigns in Oakland for many years. Most recently, the company gave $20,000 to an Oakland Chamber of Commerce political action committee that supported a version of the progressive business tax reform that was a compromise between labor and business groups.

Schnitzer has operated in Oakland since 1961. Radius Recycling did not immediately respond to a request for information about the fire.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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