After five days, an evacuation order has been lifted in Richmond, Ind., where firefighters had battled a major plastics-related fire.
The order was lifted the afternoon of April 16. More than 2,000 people had been evacuated from the area April 11 when warehouses storing recycled plastics caught fire at around 2:30 p.m.
Local officials said that the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with the county health department and state health partners, reviewed testing data provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and determined it to be safe for residents to return home. They added that businesses and schools in the evacuation zone can resume operation.
Officials also are advising residents on how to handle debris from the fire after asbestos was detected. They said April 16 that EPA contractors are searching for, flagging and removing debris from the fire. Officials added that out of an abundance of caution, asbestos professionals will wear protective gear as they gather materials until sample results are returned.
Impacted schools will be cleared of debris first. Contractors will begin on ground level and may deploy drones to search rooftops for additional debris. After school grounds are cleared, contractors will begin removing debris from residential properties, parks and/or public areas, and businesses.
Officials said it's essential for residents not to remove or disturb any debris believed to be from the fire.
EPA officials also said April 16 that the agency is continuing 24-hour air monitoring and sampling at the site and around the community. Two local firefighters sustained minor injuries in the response effort, but no major injuries were reported.
The fire started at My-Way Trading Inc. in warehouses that contained "large amounts of chipped, shredded and bulk recycled plastic." Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said that the overall site covers almost 14 acres and that the fire eventually spread to six buildings. All six buildings and their contents were "100 percent consumed" by the fire.
"There was every type of plastic you could imagine in those buildings," Brown added. "The owner brought all of it in and then lost control of it."
My-Way had collected and packaged recyclables for reselling. Plastics were stored inside and outside the buildings. The business owner has previously been cited by the city for multiple safety violations.
The city had been involved in a legal battle with My-Way's owner — identified as Seth Smith — since 2019 in an effort to get him to clean up the site, according to City Attorney Andrew Sickmann.
"The city didn't create this problem. We were allowing the owner to sell and remove material, but not add to it," Sickmann said at the news conference. "The city couldn't go in and remove it. The pandemic affected the owner's ability to sell the materials overseas, but he was doing it."
Sickmann added that the situation was further complicated by a bank having a financial interest in the materials stored at the site.
The cause of the fire has not been identified. According to state fire officials, it will be several days before the site is safe enough to enter to begin an investigation. Once the investigation is started, it will take several weeks to complete.
Locally the building is known as the former home of Hoffco, a lawn equipment company that closed in 2009.