Major Indiana plastics fire nearly out but residents worry

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Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Multiple fires that began burning Tuesday afternoon were still burning within about 14 acres of various types of plastics stored inside and outside buildings at the former factory site. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

RICHMOND, Ind. – A major industrial fire fueled by tons of scrap plastics in an Indiana city was close to being extinguished Thursday after burning for more than 48 hours, though an evacuation order for people living near the disaster remained in place, authorities said.

Richmond officials also disclosed more details about the city's dealings with a man who was operating the business where the fire occured. They said Seth Smith was barred from accepting more plastics for resale, following a 2020 cleanup order, but he was allowed to keep selling a vast collection still on hand.

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“Unfortunately with the pandemic, it became a down market,” city attorney Andrew Sickmann told reporters.

“It was hard to specify a deadline because this was a massive undertaking. There's a lot of material there," Sickmann said. “Our deadline was just as fast as possible.”

The fire at the 14-acre former factory site in Richmond, population 35,000, began Tuesday afternoon. Clouds of black smoke marred the blue spring sky for hours, stunning the community, just minutes from the Ohio border and 72 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis.

The smoke was not as dark or dense Thursday as earlier in the week, but an evacuation order for at least 1,500 people living within a half-mile was still in effect. It's not known how many left.

Richmond schools were closed for a second day while crews working in a smoky haze poured water and dug for hot spots.

“I'm happy to say that we have it 90% — maybe a little bit more — out, and we're hoping to have the fire close to 98, 99% out sometime this evening. If not, tomorrow morning,” Fire Chief Tim Brown said.

He said there were six buildings full of plastics “floor to ceiling and wall to wall.”

“I have no idea where it all came from,” Brown said. “The owner has brought it all in and just kind of lost control of it.”

Mayor Dave Snow said Smith told the city to speak to his attorney about the fire. The Associated Press could not reach Smith through phone listings. Ron Moore, a lawyer who has represented him, declined to comment.

Smith 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.”

A judge in 2020 affirmed a cleanup order after city inspectors found fire sprinklers missing and fire hazards among stacks of bulk packages of plastics. Warehouse roofs had holes and there were no utilities.

Although Richmond officials apparently were trying to work with Smith, Snow said the plastics dealer was at fault for the fire.

“It's been shown again and again that this is his mess," Snow said Thursday. "His money to clean it up — it was all to avoid this type of disaster. So everything that's ensued here remains his responsibility."

Tests on debris that landed outside the fire zone showed some evidence of asbestos, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which urged residents not to disturb anything they find.

More tests are continuing on air quality, Jason Sewell of the EPA said.

Tonja Thompson, a server at Little Sheba’s, said the effects of the fire had cut down on business at the restaurant. She said her throat has been burning, along with a lingering headache.

“Our whole house smelled like plastic,” Thompson said. “We had shut the windows and everything when they told us to do it. Stepped outside, and it was just like you were eating plastic.”

She said she wonders "what kind of health problems is it going to cause down the line."

Oak Park Pentecostals was bracing for hundreds of people at its food pantry Thursday. The church has served as a destination for people forced out of their homes.

“I miss my bed,” said Terry Snyder Jr., who has spent two nights at the church shelter with his parents. “I just want to head home.”

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AP reporter Ed White in Detroit contributed to this story.