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Richmond fire: Recycling plant expected to burn for days, site has had safety violations

A massive plume of thick, black smoke rises from the ground and spreads across a blue sky far into the distance over several city blocks. A shadow of the smoke plume also darkens several blocks.
Kevin Shook
Global Media Enterprise
A massive fire broke out a recycling facility in Richmond, Indiana, on Tuesday, April 11. The fire is expected to last for several days.

Thousands of Richmond, Indiana, residents were told to evacuate after an industrial fire broke out Tuesday that's expected to burn for several days.

This is a developing story and WYSO will update it throughout the day. Here's what we know now:

  • The fire occurred at My Way Trading warehouse, a large plastic recycling facility on 14 acres. Nearly all of it has caught fire. Just one building had nearly 12 million pounds of plastic in it.
  • People 50 miles away in Dayton have reported seeing smoke from the fire.
  • Emergency and environmental officials say early tests haven't shown any toxic chemicals in the air so far, but particulates from the heavy smoke are showing up, including in samples taken in New Paris, Ohio.
  • In the evacuation zone, city crews have rerouted water and are treating it, but they don't have information on water quality outside of Richmond.
  • Anyone experiencing breathing problems should seek medical attention, especially people with respiratory illnesses.
  • Local officials say the owner of the facility has been cited previously for unsafe building and ground violations.
  • It's unclear when people will be able to return to their homes.
  • One firefighter sustained a minor injury. No other injuries have been reported.
  • Schools closed in the area Wednesday.
  • A community help line is available at 765-973-9300.

The air has a chemical smell, and it’s hard to breathe. It’s like someone used a giant smoke machine in this city of some 35,000 people.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has five coordinators on site and they are testing the air to monitor for chemicals.

"Fortunately the toxic compounds that we're looking for we're not seeing, but everyone needs to keep in mind that smoke is harmful and we are seeing smoke in our particulate meters," said Jason Sewell with the U.S. EPA.

EPA staff will remain in the area for some time to continue to monitor the air. They are watching for particulates, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, benzene, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide and mineral acids (H2SO4 and HCl), the agency said.

Brian Huxtable is an air pollution control specialist with Montgomery County's Regional Air Pollution Control Agency or RAPCA.

The agency has a monitoring station due west of Richmond in Preble County.

"Our air monitoring network has not picked up any sort of elevated air pollution levels," Huxtable said. "I mean, that's a simple statement right there."

The wind is currently pushing the smoke north east into Darke County, he added, where RAPCA doesn't have testing infrastructure.

WYSO contacted the Darke County Sheriff's Department and a dispatcher says they haven't received any reports of air quality issues in their county.

A large plume of black smoke fills the sky.
Kevin Shook
Global Media Enterprise
Heavy, thick black smoke from a recycling plant fire could be seen as far away as Dayton.

A temporary shelter has been set up for people displaced by the evacuation at Bethesda Ministries in Richmond.

It's unknown when people will be able to return to the area, the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency said in a Facebook post late Tuesday night.

"Unfortunately, we are unable to provide an exact time or estimate when evacuation orders will be lifted," the post says. "We are waiting on air monitoring testing and results, which can take several hours to return from the EPA’s labs. Preliminary field testing results should begin to return by daybreak."

Terry Snyder is a high school junior whose family lives just a block away from the fire. Shortly after he saw the flames, police came by and told his family they should get out immediately.

“I’m just glad that the house is still standing," he said. "But it’s all enveloped in that black smoke.”

Snyder said he didn’t even have a chance to get his things. His family is now staying at a Red Cross shelter a few miles away at a Pentecostal church. They’ve been told it could be three or four more days until they can return home.

“Hopefully it will be sooner than that because it's getting kind of boring over here," Snyder said while laughing.

Benny and Patti Young live on the east side of Richmond. They watched as the smoke came their direction.

"What we were thinking is, 'My gosh, what happens when this bad smoke stuff starts coming down into our area?'" Benny Young said. "We better be thinking about leaving. That's kind of on our minds

Benny Young said they decided to stay put, but they kept their windows closed for most of the evening. The smoke passed over their area, he said, and they only noticed a light smell.

People outside the half-mile evacuation zone who live downwind to the east or northeast of the factory are also being asked to shelter in place.

Those people should turn off HVAC units, keep windows and doors closed, and bring pets inside.

Richmond firefighters have contained the flames on three sides of the property, the fire department posted on its Facebook page late Tuesday night.

The Wayne County Emergency Management Agency posted on Facebook that the fire isn't expected to spread to surrounding properties but will take some time to extinguish.

"Because of the nature of the fire and the fuel it is burning, it is expected to continue burning and producing smoke, soot, and ash for several more days," the post says.

Copy of Richmond Fire.mp4

The health impacts are unknown at the moment because officials are unsure of what materials are burning, the EMA's post says.

"Primary concerns are for respiratory issues, including shortness of breath, irritated skin, and burning/irritated eyes," the Facebook post says. "Those with respiratory issues should be especially cautious and seek medical advice or evaluation if breathing troubles arise."

Residents are reporting finding charred debris in their yards. The EMA urged anyone who finds debris to leave it alone and don't touch it. It's possible that debris could have asbestos in it.

"It is unknown what chemicals may or may not be in the debris. Do not mow over debris to further disseminate the debris," the EMA's Facebook post says. "Once they determine what was burned, additional information will be shared how to dispose of the debris."

The cause of the fire is unknown, the EMA says, and likely won't be known until the blaze is out. The state fire marshal is on scene. The investigation is likely to take weeks.

The building owner has previously been cited and ordered to clean up the property, Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said. The city took the owner to court when it wasn't cleaned up.

Once the fire is out and first responders and neighbors are safe, Snow said the city intends to pursue holding the property owner responsible. He called the owner "negligent" and "irresponsible."

"We were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard," said during a news conference on Wednesday. "This was a fear for us and why we had taken so many steps to prevent this from happening. That business owner is fully responsible for all of this."

The city has previously taken ownership of a portion of the property during a tax sale in attempt to hold the owner responsible for cleaning it up, Snow said.

President Joe Biden said Wednesday afternoon that he has been in touch with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and offered federal help to make sure the area is safe.

Tana Weingartner from WVXU contributed to this story.

Updated: April 12, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT
This breaking news story is being updated throughout the day. It was last updated at 10 p.m. Wednesday to add in comments from Richmond residents and President Biden, as well as a longer version of the audio story. Earlier updates added information from a news conference on Wednesday detailing air monitoring and previous safety violations at the site.
Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.
Samantha Sommer is the news director for WYSO, where she leads a team of award-winning reporters and anchors and collaborates with NPR stations across Ohio. She joined the station in May 2022 after more than 20 years with Cox Enterprises, most recently as managing editor for investigations for the Dayton Daily News. Samantha also has served as the editor of the Springfield News-Sun, and Springfield bureau chief for WHIO TV and WHIO Radio. She is a Detroit native and a graduate of Northwestern University. Samantha is married with two adult stepchildren and a 4-year-old son.