Apr 12, 2023 - Energy & Environment

What to know about the "toxic" Indiana storage facility fire

The industrial fire in Richmond, Indiana, on April 11.

The industrial fire in Richmond, Indiana. Photo: City of Richmond, Indiana

More than 2,000 residents of an Indiana town are under an evacuation order after a large industrial fire broke out at a materials storage facility on Tuesday.

Driving the news: The fire has released massive clouds of black smoke, which Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones said was "definitely toxic."

  • "Honestly, this fire is going to burn for a few days," Jones said on Tuesday, though he added that the fire was in a contained area.
  • All schools in Richmond, Indiana, the site of the fire, were closed on Wednesday in response to the blaze.
  • Richmond is located about 70 miles east of Indianapolis, near the Ohio border.

The big picture: Richmond, which had a population of around 35,ooo in 2021, said in an update on Wednesday the fire started around 2:30 pm ET at two warehouses containing large amounts of chipped, shredded and bulk recycled plastic.

  • The city said the My Way trading warehouse was previously used by a business that collected and packaged recyclables for reselling and that the facility operators were previously cited by the city's Unsafe Building Commission for various violations.
  • Richmond Mayor Dave Snow told AP that prior to the fire, the city ordered the owners of the facility to clean up and remediate the factory site. “We knew that was a fire hazard the way they were storing materials," he said.
  • A Google Street View of the facility from May 2019 showed several plastic containers filled with materials and large stacked bundles of cardboard and other materials in an open-air storage area.

The Environmental Protection Agency began air monitoring around the site, it said on Tuesday night.

  • On Wednesday, the EPA said it was monitoring for combustion products that are common from fires involving plastics, including particulates, volatile organic compounds, benzene, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide and mineral acids.
  • It also said it began collecting debris samples from the surrounding community to determine if asbestos-containing materials, which could have been present given the age of the buildings, may have been carried from the site of the fire.

What they're saying: A spokesperson for the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency told Axios the evacuation order so far affected at least 2,011 people in 911 housing units.

  • Three of those people had entered shelters as of Wednesday morning, while the remaining either found temporary housing outside of the evacuation zone or refused to leave their homes, the spokesperson said.
  • The evacuation zone was a half-mile radius around the facility, while those outside the zone but downwind of the fire were ordered to shelter in place, close all windows and turn off air conditioners.
  • The agency said the potential health effects from the smoke released in the fire could not be known until officials determine exactly what materials the fire had burned but warned that people with respiratory issues should be especially cautious.
  • It also said an investigation into the fire had been opened and officials from several state and local agencies would be involved.

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