Indiana recycling plant fire is out; plant had been cited for hazards, smoke poses health risks

ByElizabeth Wolfe, Paul P. Murphy and Michelle Watson, CNN
Friday, April 14, 2023
Indiana recycling plant fire extinguished, health concerns remain
The Richmond, Indiana recycling plant fire has been extinguished after two days of work from firefighters, officials said.

RICHMOND, Ind. -- After firefighters spent two days battling an inferno fueled by plastics in eastern Indiana, the fire has been fully extinguished, officials said.

"We're now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples to determine when the evacuation order can be lifted," Richmond Mayor Dave Smith told CNN Thursday night.

But the blaze at a Richmond recycling plant reignited old frustrations over safety hazards at the facility and sparked new fears among residents about the future of their health.

About 2,000 people living within a half-mile radius of the plant were still under evacuation orders Thursday, two days after the fire started. And for the second straight day, Richmond public schools were closed.

"If you are downwind of the area, stay inside, close your windows, and turn off air conditioning," Richmond city officials warned.

The fire was 90% out as of Thursday afternoon, Richmond Fire Department Chief Tim Brown said at a news conference.

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The US Environmental Protection Agency had not detected any toxic compounds as of Wednesday morning. But the state fire marshal has already said the smoke plumes were "definitely toxic."

Due to very little wind, "residents may notice that the smoke from the fire has settled more in and around the city and in areas that had not previously had issues," the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency said Thursday morning.

The EPA has been monitoring air quality at 15 locations around the site for the possibility of toxic chemicals from the incinerated plastics.

The billowing black smoke stirred memories of the recent toxic train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio. High levels of some chemicals from that disaster could pose long-term risks, researchers have said.

As the black smoke spreads, so do health concerns

Corey McConnell's family fled their home in the evacuation zone Tuesday night. He could already smell fumes and saw exhausted firefighters battling the blaze.

"It's really unbelievable," McConnell told CNN. "Makes me worry about the health of my family, not just today but in the future as well. Who knows how long this could be in the air for?"

Resident Wendy Snyder evacuated to a Red Cross emergency shelter but briefly returned home to grab a few belongings, she told CNN affiliate WHIO. That's when she noticed the stench of burning plastic.

"There is a stink in the air when you go outside on our porch," Snyder said. "In fact, it burned my throat because (we) weren't wearing a mask."

The primary health concern to residents is particulate matter -- fine particles found in smoke -- that could cause respiratory problems if inhaled, said Christine Stinson, executive director of the Wayne County Health Department.

N95 masks could protect against the particles, but people should leave an area if they see or smell smoke or experience symptoms, Stinson said.

Due to the age of the building, asbestos -- a naturally occurring but very toxic substance once widely used for insulation -- is another possible concern. The EPA was evaluating the area, including school grounds, for potential fire debris that might contain asbestos, it said Wednesday night.

And while the EPA's air quality tests had found no signs of toxic chemicals such as styrene or benzene as of mid-Wednesday morning, testing continues as more smoke settles.

Such chemicals could increase the risk of cancer if someone is exposed to a high concentration for a prolonged period of time, said Richard Peltier, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

"We know that it is very common that a large range of chemicals are formed whenever plastic materials are burned, including styrene, benzene, and a wide number of polyaromatic hydrocarbons -- all of these are strong carcinogens, and it's important for people to avoid exposures," Peltier said.

Short-term exposure could also cause symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, coughing, headache and fatigue. "Asthma is regularly triggered by these types of complicated exposures so if you have asthma, it's really important to be extra careful," Peltier said.

It's not clear when evacuated residents will be allowed to return home, Richmond officials said. Fire officials expect the smoldering site to burn for several days.

City officials blame plant owner for the fire

While it's not yet clear what sparked the recycling plant inferno, local leaders have shared concerns since at least 2019 that the facility was riddled with fire hazards and building code violations, records show.

"We knew it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when this was going to happen," the fire chief said.

In 2019, the city's Unsafe Building Commission found that the "cumulative effect of the code violations present" rendered "the premises unsafe, substandard, or a danger to the health and safety on the public," according to meeting minutes obtained by CNN.

During a commission hearing, the plant's owner, Seth Smith, admitted one of the buildings on the property had no fire extinguishing system, the records show. CNN has reached out to Smith, and the attorney who previously represented him in a related lawsuit declined to comment.

Richmond officials "were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard," Mayor Dave Snow said Wednesday, accusing the plant's owner of ignoring a city order to clean up the property.

The fire began in a semitrailer loaded with plastics, then spread to surrounding piles of recyclables before eventually reaching the building, which was "completely full from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall," Brown, fire chief, said. When firefighters arrived, he said, they had difficulty reaching the buildings because access roads were blocked by piles of plastic.

"Everything that's ensued here -- the fire, the damages, the risk that our first responders have taken and the risk these citizens are under -- are the responsibility of that negligent business owner," Snow said.

After Smith was ordered by the city building commission to repair or demolish and vacate his properties in 2019, the plant owner and his company petitioned a court to review the order.

An Indiana circuit court judge ruled in favor of the city in March 2020. The court found in part Smith's properties "constitute a fire hazard; are a hazard to public health; constitute a nuisance; and are dangerous to people or property because of violations of statute and City Ordinance concerning building condition and maintenance."

The city last year seized two of the three land parcels the recycling plant sits on after Smith failed to pay property taxes.

It's unclear what steps the city took to remedy the site since the seizure and whether it took any steps before 2022 to enforce its orders requiring Smith to repair or demolish and vacate the properties.

Smith was contacted by an investigator Tuesday night, the mayor said.

While firefighters try to snuff out the blaze, they face another challenge: trying not to destroy potential evidence that might help determine the cause, Brown said.

Officials probably won't be able to identify the cause of the blaze until after the fire is extinguished and investigators can safely enter the plant, the state fire marshal's office said.

Any legal liability against the plant owner will be handled after the cleanup process, City Attorney Andrew J. Sickmann said at a Thursday news conference.

"Whether or not there can be potential criminal liability would be a question for law enforcement and prosecutors," Sickmann said.

The only operation running out of the building before the fire was moving materials out and shipping them overseas as ordered by officials, Sickmann said.

"It's his mess, it's been shown again and again it's his mess," Snow, the mayor, said of the owner. "Everything that's ensued here remains his responsibility."

Snow added that they are tracking all costs of the incident in case of potential litigation.

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