Thousands Evacuated After Emergency Plant Fire

Thousands of people in eastern Indiana were evacuated this week as  blazing inferno raged at  plastics recycling plant.

The fire was mostly put out as of Friday, but as many as 2,000 residents in one city were still awaiting word on whether they could return to their homes. These residents were under an evacuation order as of Friday still, with officials not meeting again until Saturday to determine whether the numbers from both water and air samples suggested it was safe for people to return.

The city in question is Richmond. Its mayor, Dave Snow, said on Friday that the results of those tests would determine how long the evacuation order would remain in place. He said:

“Although the fire is under control, the site is still very dangerous. I need people to stay away from this location.”

Volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, as well as carbon monoxide, chlorine, benzene and hydrogen cyanide were all detected near the center of the zone of the fire. 

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency said that even firefighters needed to take precautions while battling the blaze, though none of those chemicals were “detected outside of the evacuation zone in the community.”

Six different air samples found harmful VOCs, and those samples “will be submitted for laboratory analysis and results will (be) reported early next week,” according to EPA officials.

One of the air samples that was taken more than a mile from the site of the fire actually detected chrysotile asbestos in some debris, officials said on Thursday. This is also known as white asbestos, and it can potentially cause cancer. It’s used in many different products, such as textiles, plastics and cement.

Jason Sewell, an official with the EPA, warned residents that if they have fire debris that landed in their yard, they shouldn’t mow it until officials are able to advise further the proper way to clean it up. The agency said it’s been monitoring air quality for any toxic chemicals from the plastics that were incinerated at 18 different spots surrounding the site of the fire.

Tim Brown, the Richmond fire chief, said that all types of plastics that you would imagine” were being held at the facility that burned. The state fire marshal also added that the smoke plumes coming from the site were “definitely toxic.”

The fire was under control as of Thursday night, according to Brown, though hotspots were expected to potentially flare up on Friday, which is why crews will be stationed at the site for the entirety of the weekend.

It’s not clear what ended up causing the fire in the first place. That being said, local officials have shared their concerns about the facility for at least the last four years. According to a CNN report, records shows that there were multiple building code violations at the site as well as different fire hazards. 

Brown commented on this when he said:

“We knew it wasn’t a matter of it, it was a matter of when this was going to happen.”

If that’s the case, the question remains, then, why wasn’t something done about it before a disaster like this could even happen?