Indiana recycling plant fire sent huge plume of smoke into air
RICHMOND, Ind. -- A fire burning at a recycling plant in Richmond, Indiana, is mostly out, but hundreds remain evacuated from their homes as crews monitor the air for chemicals and collect potentially harmful debris from neighboring schools and homes, officials said Saturday.
Richmond residents who live within a half a mile radius of the recycling plant -- about 2,000 of Richmond's 35,000 residents -- have been under a mandatory evacuation order since Tuesday, when the massive inferno exploded at the plastic-filled recycling plant in Richmond, sending thick, black smoke over the area.
When they can return home will mainly depend on whether it's safe to breathe the air in their community. Officials had warned that the smoke the fire spawned was "definitely toxic," forcing the closure of Richmond public schools for days as the US Environmental Protection Agency performed air sampling and monitoring tests in the area.
An announcement was initially expected Saturday on when evacuation orders could be lifted, but Richmond city officials later said that no determination had been made. "We have another meeting in the morning to determine the best time to lift the evacuation order," Mayor Dave Snow said Saturday evening.
"Unfortunately, we are unable to provide an exact time when evacuation orders will be lifted. As air monitoring results come back from lab testing and they can be analyzed by our health experts, we are hoping to be able to allow residents to return to their homes," Wayne County Emergency Management Agency officials said Saturday.
Those downwind from the fire were asked to continue to shelter in place "if they feel they are in danger or find themselves in a smoke plume," emergency officials said.
More meetings and data analysis are needed before the evacuation order can be lifted, Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown told CNN Saturday.
As for the blaze itself, Brown said firefighters have knocked down 98-99% of the fire at the recycling plant as of Saturday.
"Right now, there is no plume, there is no product being off-gassed from the fire itself," Brown told CNN. "What we have coming off of it is mainly a white smoke or some steam. We have no plume. We have a slight wind, which is kind of pushing things out."
Inside the facility, there are hot spots and occasional small fires that will continue to smolder for days and produce smoke, soot or the smell of burnt plastic, emergency officials said.
In the meantime, work is underway to clear debris scattered in the community from the toxic fire.
Some samples of debris from the area tested positive for asbestos containing materials, Wayne County emergency officials said, citing preliminary tests by the EPA.
"Because all debris has the potential to contain asbestos, it is important that a trained professional remove all materials suspected to be from the fire," emergency officials said, asking residents to not disturb or touch any debris they find on their property.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, but very toxic, substance that was once widely used for insulation. When inhaled or ingested, asbestos fibers can become trapped in the body, and may eventually cause genetic damage to the body's cells. Exposure may also cause mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
Crews in protective gear began collecting debris from three schools near the fire site on Saturday, including three in Richmond and one school in Ohio.
Officials said that schools impacted with debris will be cleared first, and then contractors will begin to deploy drones to search rooftops for additional debris, according to the post.
"After school grounds are cleared, these contractors will begin removing debris from residential properties, parks and/or public areas, and businesses," city officials say in the post.
The county said the EPA is bringing in federal contractors to assist with the proper cleanup and removal of visible debris in both Indiana and Ohio.
A primary health concern to residents is particulate matter, which could cause respiratory problems if inhaled, Christine Stinson, who heads the Wayne County Health Department, previously said.
At the fire zone's center, the chemicals hydrogen cyanide, benzene, chlorine, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, were detected, the EPA said Friday. They were not detected outside the evacuation zone, the agency said.
Potentially harmful VOCs also were found in six air samples, the agency said, without saying where the samples were taken.
Particulate matter also was found inside and outside the half-mile evacuation zone, as expected, the agency said.
Additionally, 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, chrysotile asbestos can cause cancer and is used in products from cement to plastics to textiles.
As for water quality, testing downstream of the fire site is underway and officials say they have "not found anything of immediate alarm, including any sign of fish kills."
Crews did find some ash and loose plastic debris, "but weir booms have been installed and are successfully capturing this material. Likewise, Indiana American Water has also been closely monitoring the drinking water and has reported no unusual readings or results from testing," Wayne County emergency officials said.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation and likely won't be known for weeks, officials said. But local leaders have shared concerns since at least 2019 that the facility had hazards and building code violations, records show.
The mayor has accused the plant's owner of ignoring a city order to clean up the property, saying the plant was a fire hazard.
CNN has sought comment from the plant's owner, Seth Smith. The attorney who previously represented Smith in a related lawsuit declined to comment.
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