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Recycling plant fire continues burning in Richmond; schools closed again Thursday

National and regional officials voiced concern about a toxic blend of chemicals pouring into the air from the burn site in Richmond.

RICHMOND, Ind. — A massive fire that sparked at a plastics recycling plant in Richmond, Indiana, on Tuesday has prompted local evacuations and sparked nationwide concern as plumes of black, toxic smoke continue billowing into the air. 

Richmond Community Schools will be closed for a second day tomorrow, Thursday, April 13, 2023. There will be no E-learning and everyone is encouraged to follow the shelter in place order, Richmond Community Schools said. 

Faculty and staff are not required to work from home, and are also not permitted in RCS buildings.

The White House said President Joe Biden spoke with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb over the phone about the recycling plant fire, and said the Environmental Protection Agency sent personnel to help with “air monitoring and debris sampling" last night.

Personnel with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management are also on scene evaluating the fire, Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said. Officials continued to reiterate concern over toxins pouring into the air that prompted residential evacuations within half a mile of the burn site. 

“There’s a host of different chemicals plastics give off when they’re on fire,” state Fire Marshal Steve Jones said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s concerning.”

An air quality alert was issued for Wayne and Randolph counties in Indiana due to the nearby recycling plant fire. Indiana environmental and health officials have long reiterated the potentially deadly impact of open burns, which can cause pollutants like dioxins, arsenic, mercury, chromium, polychlorinated biphenyl and lead to seep into nearby groundwater or soil. 

"A single residential fire or widespread residential fires, such as the burning of leaves and yard debris during fall, can adversely affect the health of family, friends, neighbors, and even your local community. Depending on what is being burned, smoke from open burning can," IDEM said on its website.

Richmond schools were also closed Wednesday as a portion of the city remained under a shelter-in-place order due to the fire.

IU East, located in Richmond, held classes virtually Wednesday. The school said the rest of campus will remain at limited operations due to the nearby fire.

Credit: Kevin Shook Global Media Enterprise
Firefighters battle a large fire at a warehouse in Richmond, Ind. on Tuesday, April 11, 2023.

The fire at the warehouse in the 300 block of NW F Street started Tuesday afternoon around 2:40 p.m. and continued to burn into Wednesday. Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones said the fire can be expected to burn for days.

Emergency crews are asking anyone within a half-mile of the fire location to evacuate. Those outside of the half-mile radius are asked to shelter in place and turn off HVAC units.

"The smoke is definitely toxic," Jones said. "So we've put in an evacuation within a half-mile, I believe is what it is, and so we don't want the residents in the smoke. And as the wind changes, we may change the direction of the evacuations. Other than that, especially, elderly people that have difficulty breathing should stay inside or temporarily move out of the area."

The Indiana State Police and Wayne County Sheriff's Department are assisting with evacuations. 

A temporary shelter was opened at Bethesda Ministries at 2200 Peacock Road in Richmond for those who were displaced from the evacuation zone. The Red Cross later opened a shelter for those who need a place to stay overnight at the Oak Park Pentecostal Church at 1920 Chester Blvd.

Snow said the fire is at a plastics recycling processing facility. He told 13News the fire started in a tractor-trailer onsite and spread to the rest of the facility.

Tuesday evening, Richmond Fire Department Chief Tim Brown said firefighters were able to contain the fire before it jumped to a nearby neighborhood.

He said nothing at this point indicates foul play was involved in starting the massive fire.

"It's probably the largest fire I've seen in my career," Brown said.

Snow said the warehouse where the fire was burning was completely filled with plastics. Limited access to the fire also posed a challenge for firefighters. 

"It creates quite a challenge because we only have access to one side of the building and that's the front side, and to the one side, we'd call the D side, we had one lane in and that's it," Brown said. "So we had to go in that lane and back out real quick, we can't get around the building. So we're surrounding it in every little area we can — on the other side of the railroad tracks, in the neighborhood, anywhere there's a place for us to get in apparatus in we did."

Brown added that one firefighter was treated and released from the hospital after injuring his ankle while fighting the fire. 

Snow said earlier that no other injuries had been reported.

Rick Shrader owns a business near the warehouse.

“We started to see a little plume of smoke coming out of there, but then I would say maybe 10 or 15 minutes, it grew and grew and grew into a much bigger fire,” Shrader said. “It’s probably the biggest cloud of smoke I’ve seen ever.” 

Six other departments assisted the Richmond Fire Department in fighting the fire, as well as covering for other runs.

Snow said the owner of the business, which formerly operated as My-Way Trading, is fully responsible for the fire and subsequent cleanup.

"The city took some ownership of that property during the due diligence, enforcing the cleanup, and we did that as part of holding that property owner responsible, that business owner responsible, for that unsafe building owner," Snow said.

"He's been contesting us in court and yes, we took the property away during that process. But he is still fully responsible for the cleanup, fully responsible for everything that's happening behind me right now, responsible for the safety hazard that our citizens are in and our first responders have been in all day," the mayor continued. "So I'm deeply upset that someone would create this kind of hazard and be so negligent about it."

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