The fire at an Indiana plastics recycling plant is out. But residents' health concerns linger as asbestos is found in debris
As a two-day inferno fizzles out at a plastics recycling plant a state judge deemed a public health hazard, up to 2,000 residents of an eastern Indiana city are still waiting to learn if it’s safe to go home.
“We’re now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples and determine when the evacuation order can be lifted,” Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said Thursday night. “Our goal is to get people back into their homes as soon as possible.”
The chemicals hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, were detected at the center of the fire zone – with “none … detected outside of the evacuation zone in the community,” the US Environmental Protection Agency said Friday, noting firefighters should take precautions.
Potentially harmful VOCs were found in six air samples that “will be submitted for laboratory analysis and results will (be) reported early next week,” the agency said without detailing where the samples were taken. Particulate matter – fine particles in smoke – also was found inside and outside the half-mile evacuation zone, as expected, it said.
One of two air samples taken a little more than a mile from the fire site detected chrysotile asbestos in debris, an EPA official said Thursday. Also called white asbestos, it can cause cancer and is used in products from cement to plastics to textiles.
Anyone who may have fire debris in their yard should not mow their lawns it until officials can advise more on how to clean it up, the EPA official, Jason Sewell, said. The EPA has been monitoring the air for toxic chemicals from incinerated plastics at 18 spots around the fire site.
“Any type of plastics that you would imagine was in this facility,” Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said, while the state fire marshal has called smoke plumes “definitely toxic.”
The billowing black smoke that clouded Richmond this week stirred memories of this year’s toxic train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio. High levels of some chemicals from that disaster could pose long-term risks, researchers have said.
About 2,000 people living within a half-mile radius of the Indiana plant remain under evacuation orders after the fire was “fully extinguished ahead of schedule,” the mayor said late Thursday, citing Brown. The EPA on Friday morning, however, said the “fire department is addressing hot spots and flare-ups, the fire is not extinguished.”
For the third straight day since the fire ignited, Richmond public schools are closed Friday.
“It’s really unbelievable,” resident Corey McConnell, whose family left their home in the evacuation zone, 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?”
While it’s not yet clear what sparked the fire, 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.
McConnell already could smell fumes when his family left Tuesday night as they saw exhausted firefighters battling the blaze.
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 – the kind recommended to thwart Covid-19 – 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 that caught fire, asbestos – a naturally occurring but very toxic substance once widely used for insulation – remains a concern. The EPA was evaluating the area, including school grounds, for potential fire debris that might contain asbestos, it said Wednesday night.
The agency’s air quality tests had found no signs of toxic chemicals such as styrene or benzene as of mid-Wednesday morning.
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.
Richmond officials “were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard,” Snow, the mayor, said Wednesday, accusing the plant’s owner of ignoring a city order to clean up the property.
CNN has reached out to Seth Smith, the owner of the Cornerstone Trading Group, LLC. The attorney who previously represented Smith in a related lawsuit declined to comment.
Smith was contacted by an investigator Tuesday night, Snow said.
The blaze 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, the 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.
Firefighters tried not to destroy potential evidence that might help determine the cause, Brown said. That conclusion probably won’t be reached until investigators can safely enter the plant, the state fire marshal’s office has said.
Any legal liability against the plant owner will be handled after the cleanup process, city attorney Andrew Sickmann said at the Thursday news conference.
“Whether or not there can be potential criminal liability would be a question for law enforcement and prosecutors,” he 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 said of the owner. “Everything that’s ensued here remains his responsibility.”
The city is tracking all costs of the incident in case of potential litigation, he added.
Richmond’s Unsafe Building Commission in 2019 had found the “cumulative effect of the code violations present” at the recycling facility 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, Smith admitted one of the buildings on the property had no fire extinguishing system, the records show.
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 removed vehicles from the site but couldn’t take away other materials because the business owner objected to them being removed and disposed of, Sickmann said.
“Additionally, a bank had a security interest in the materials,” he said.
The city struck a deal with the business owner allowing him to “remove the materials and sell them pursuant to his normal course of business,” Sickmann said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the wrong last name for Richmond Mayor Dave Snow.