South Philly scrap heap moving to Camden

Joseph W. Balzano, president of Camden Iron & Metal, stands amid shredded steel in Camden that will be shipped overseas. By the end of this year, a modern shredder will be installed at Atlantic and Front Streets in Camden. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Joseph W. Balzano, president of Camden Iron & Metal, stands amid shredded steel in Camden that will be shipped overseas. By the end of this year, a modern shredder will be installed at Atlantic and Front Streets in Camden. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 01, 2012

Camden Iron & Metal and its heap of crushed scrap at the foot of the Platt Memorial Bridge near the airport are moving to Camden, along with 175 jobs and the promise of 50 hires.

The unsightly junkyard of crushed cars and washing machines that is synonymous with 26th Street and Penrose Avenue - the gateway to Philadelphia for millions of visitors - will disappear after the scrap recycler installs, by the end of this year, a modern new shredder at Atlantic and Front Streets in Camden.

Now, all the scrap gets crushed in South Philadelphia and trucked to Camden, where a million tons a year goes out of Beckett Street Terminal.

After trying since 2005 to consolidate its operations in Philadelphia - and even buying for $13.2 million the 44-acre vacant Foamex Industrial Inc. in Eddystone - the company, which began in Camden in 1929, is going back to its roots.

"We're currently constructing the shredder site now. We've got all our permits," said Camden Iron's president, Joseph W. Balzano.

The final blow to relocating in Pennsylvania came when the Corbett administration in October rescinded $31.1 million pledged by former Gov. Rendell to build a pier on the Delaware River at the old Foamex site.

Without state money, the company said it made no economic sense to build an expensive dock that it would use only 80 days a year. The Philadelphia Regional Port Authority would have owned the dock, Balzano said.

Camden Iron, purchased in 2007 by European Metal Recycling Ltd., plans to put the Eddystone property up for sale, along with several other parcels it owns in Philadelphia.

"This isn't sour grapes," Balzano said. "Unfortunately for us, with the change of the administration, and the change of philosophy on the budget, we had to regroup and go somewhere else."

Wherever Camden Iron tried to move in Philadelphia, it encountered either community resistance or the sites did not work for the company. It spent nearly $30 million in the quest to relocate to Philadelphia.

"My concern really wasn't the money loss. It was the lost opportunity that we've had to deal with over the last eight years, of not having our optimal facility up to speed," Balzano said.

Pennsylvania's loss will be Camden's gain, New Jersey officials say.

"It's a great opportunity for New Jersey and the port," said Kevin Castagnola, executive director and CEO of South Jersey Port Corp. "They are Camden Iron and Metal. They belong in Camden."

At stake are not just Camden Iron jobs, but all the jobs created in loading the ships and transporting the scrap, longshore and trucking jobs, Castagnola said.

The firm, founded by the Bantigvolio family of South Jersey, has signed a 20-year lease, with two additional five-year options. The shredder site will be enclosed by walls, not visible from the street or homes, and with state-of-the-art emissions controls, including foam injection and a "smart" water system to eliminate dust, Balzano said.

The new shredder will be able to process metal three times faster, and the sound will be below mandated decibel levels, he said, saying there would be less truck traffic because the crushed scrap will not have to travel from South Philadelphia to leave on barges in Camden.

"It's good news for Camden because one of our priorities is job creation," Mayor Dana Redd said. "Our unemployment rate is about 23 percent. Anything we can do to drive down that unemployment number certainly would be something I would advocate for."

Redd said Camden Iron had been a good neighbor and helped pay to restore the city's vandalized ornamental streetlights. "They understand our limited budget and limited finances. Beyond that, they've always been a part of Camden."

Helene Pierson, executive director of the Heart of Camden, said, "This is a difficult topic for our community. We need jobs, and we need better air quality. It does seem that we might be in better shape for air quality than we are now," because the company "is converting old, outdated bad-for-the-environment equipment to newer equipment."

"Joseph Balzano took the time to sit with us, and I believe he will work with us on best practices for his industry," Pierson said. "We are worried about noise and vibrations in addition to particulate. That said, I'll be happy for the increase in local jobs, as we have residents who need and are ready to work to help improve their lives."

Camden Iron had also considered Tioga Marine Terminal, Pier 124, the old Publicker site north of the Walt Whitman Bridge, and Girard Point on the Schuylkill.

The city had worked with the firm since the early 2000s trying to find a site, recalled deputy Philadelphia Commerce Director Duane Bumb. "The city was interested. It would have been a net 250 jobs."

In 2005, the Philadelphia port authority agreed to lease 15 acres near Tioga terminal, but former City Council member Joan Krajewski did not want the shredding operation in Port Richmond. City Council declined to approve one parcel needed for the project.

In 2007, Camden Iron's former owner, John Bantigvolio, bought for $6.3 million the Girard Point site on the Schuylkill. The deal would have required relocating SJA Construction and deepening the Schuylkill shipping channel from 28 feet to 40 feet. Neither happened.

In 2010, Camden Iron bought the old Foamex complex in Eddystone, which was a good fit, but it took more than a year to get the environmental permits and approvals. By then, the administration in Harrisburg had changed.

When Camden Iron bought the Penrose Avenue scrap yard in the 1980s, a big part of the business was trucking scrap to steel mills in Pennsylvania. Today, the company uses barges to haul scrap to steel mills in North and South Carolina and Virginia, and deep-sea vessels that go to Turkey, Egypt, South America, China, Mexico and Italy.

Camden Iron also looked at expanding in Camden, but in 2005 there was not enough electric-power capability to run the shredder, Balzano said. At the time, local politicians had a different vision for the Camden waterfront, "more of a marina arrangement," Balzano said. "They wanted to put high-rise townhouses in that area, and anything generating through the port had to be inside a warehouse, which doesn't work for scrap."

But times change, and so has the economy. "The project they are coming back with now addresses many of those issues that were brought up locally," said N.J. State Sen. Donald Norcross. "These are good, living-wage jobs, and we didn't want to see those jobs leave. It's a net positive to the region and to Camden City."

Balzano said, "In a lot of ways, we are happy that we are staying in Camden, despite the fact we've spent a lot of money to come full circle. Hopefully, South Jersey and the community, with the jobs and the port, can be rewarded by what we do. We know we're not pretty. But we are steady. We maintain our jobs, and we are Teamsters. We pay full medical benefits. We do all the things that we claim."

Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.

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