Crews continue to fight major Indiana scrap plastics fire

RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) – Schools in an Indiana city were closed for a second day Thursday while crews working in a smoky haze poured water and dug for hot spots at a major industrial fire fueled by tons of scrap plastics.

The smoke in Richmond, population 35,000, was not as dark or dense as earlier in the week, but an evacuation order for people living within a half-mile was still in effect. Authorities cautioned other residents who were suddenly seeing smoke due to shifting winds to avoid the outdoors.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was awaiting test results to determine if any fire debris that landed outside the 14-acre site contained asbestos, which can harm lungs.

Authorities planned to give an update on the fire at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Richmond is 72 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis.

Oak Park Pentecostals was bracing for hundreds of people at its food pantry. The church has served as a key stop for people since fire blackened the sky with towering smoke Tuesday afternoon and stunned the community, just west of the Indiana-Ohio border.

The church was trying to “fill in and provide comfort to the greatest extent possible for our families that are displaced or evacuated, or somewhere in between those fears,” executive pastor Jesse Arthur said.

At least 1,500 people live in the evacuation zone, though it’s not known how many obeyed the call to leave.

Richmond schools were closed for a second consecutive day based on advice from county emergency managers.

The fire occurred at a former factory site that was used to store plastics that could be resold. The operation has long been under scrutiny by Richmond officials: A judge in 2020 affirmed a cleanup order after city inspectors found fire sprinklers missing and fire hazards among bulk packages of plastics.

Seth Smith, who has been identified as the operator, told the city in 2019 that he sends scrap materials to 29 countries, according to meeting minutes of the Unsafe Building Commission.

“I own a bunch of trailers,” Smith told the commission. “I set the semis at these facilities and they fill them up with their scrap materials. When I started in 1987, there was only 4,000 plastic companies. Now there is over 47,000 plastic companies. It has got out of control, but now I have a plan.”

It’s not clear what, if anything, Smith did to comply with the court decision about a cleanup or what steps the city took to enforce it. His attorney at the time, Ron Moore, declined to comment Thursday. Smith could not be reached.

“The city was devoting available resources to abate the problems, but unfortunately the fire occurred before complete remediation could occur,” city attorney Andrew Sickmann told WRTV-TV.

Smith’s business has been known as My Way Trading, Cornerstone Trading Group and Diversified Green Solutions, according to court documents and other public filings.


AP reporter Ed White in Detroit contributed to this story.

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