Richmond plastics recycling warehouse that caught fire had previous safety citations
A massive blaze in eastern Indiana that created plumes of toxic smoke Tuesday, forcing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents, took place at a warehouse that had previously been cited as being unsafe, according to court documents.
A 2020 review from the Richmond, Indiana, Unsafe Building Commission found that the site, which houses recycling plastic, was missing adequate fire suppression systems and that fire lanes around the building were blocked.
Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said during a Wednesday briefing that fire crews and the city had been trying to get My Way Trading Warehouse to clean up its buildings “for some time.” And Mayor Dave Snow said that city officials “were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard.”
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He added that it was a matter of “when, not if” there was an issue.
It is unclear exactly what caused the fire, according to the state Department of Homeland Security. Agency spokesman David Hosick said officials were hoping to be able to access the building Wednesday evening or Thursday to begin their investigation.
When firefighters responded to the facility Tuesday, they found a semi trailer — loaded with an unknown type of plastic — behind one of the buildings engulfed in flames, Brown said. The fire then spread to other piles of plastic around the truck and eventually to the buildings.
The two warehouses at the site contained a “large amount of chipped, shredded and bulk recycled plastic,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Brown added that the 175,000-square foot facility was “completely full.”
Stockpiling has become a common problem at plastics recycling facilities as the infrastructure and markets for these types of materials is lacking.
Still, the Richmond Unsafe Building Commission told the facility owners it needed to remove materials from the site to the amount allowed by code, according to the court order. It also said the facility needed to remove materials to open fire lanes.
Brown said Wednesday that firefighters had trouble getting access to the facility because piles of plastic were blocking access roads.
The State Fire Marshal said in a news briefing that the smoke is “definitely toxic.” When plastics burn, they often can form dioxin — which the EPA describes as a highly toxic pollutant that take a long time to break down and can cause cancer.
Both the EPA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management are onsite and monitoring air quality at 15 different locations around the site. As of mid-morning Wednesday, the agency said it had not identified toxic compounds such as styrene or benzene.
The agency said it will continue 24-hour monitoring as part of its response, and it also is watching for things such as carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and chlorine.
“Most of the impacts (of the fire) are likely to be immediate,” said Gabe Filippelli, director of the Indiana Environmental Resilience Institute. “The smoke is not only dangerous to pulmonary health, for people and their pets, but also might contain additional hazards of airborne chemicals that may be toxic.”
IDEM also issued an air quality action day for Wayne and Randolph counties as a result of the fire. The agency said it is forecasting elevated levels of fine particles in the air due to the smoke, and that weather conditions will continue to spread the smoke. It added that conditions should improve overnight, but it has already issued another action day in those same counties for Thursday.
The Wayne County Health Department said the fine particles can cause tightening of the chest, burning in the eyes and aggravation of asthma.
Filippelli said residents should wipe down surfaces with a damp cloth if smoke particles accumulate in the home. Federal and state officials are advising residents not to pick up debris. HVAC intakes should be turned off, they said, and those in the area should avoid spending time outside, if possible.
The EPA said it has started collecting debris samples from the community to check for asbestos due to the age of the building.
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Environmental advocates said the situation is “unacceptable,” drawing parallels to the fire and hazardous materials released after a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, in February. High levels of some chemicals released during that disaster could have long-term health impacts, experts have said.
“Once again, communities are being forced to leave their homes because of another inexcusable and unnecessary disaster,” Sierra Club Executive Director Ben Jealous said in a release. “The failures at every level to enact even adequate oversight and safeguards continue to imperil our communities. Enough is enough.”
The Indiana legislature passed a bill this year that would promote the burning of plastic waste, according to Amanda Shepherd, director of Sierra Club’s Hoosier Chapter. In particular, Senate Bill 472 would exempt facilities that turn plastic into fuel to be burned from Indiana's solid waste laws. The bill currently is waiting to be signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Richmond fire releases toxic smoke at site with past safety violations