RICHMOND, Ind. -- A massive fire emitting toxic smoke from an eastern Indiana recycling plant described by the city's mayor as a known "fire hazard" has forced evacuation orders for about 2,000 people as the battle to put it out is expected to drag on for days, city and state officials said.
Plastics were among the items that started burning Tuesday at the Richmond plant, and the smoke -- a thick, black column that rose from the site -- is "definitely toxic," Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones said in a news briefing.
"There is a host of different chemicals that plastics give off when they're on fire, and it's concerning," Jones said Tuesday evening, adding he expects the fire to burn for days.
City officials "were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard," Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said Wednesday. "This was a fear for us."
The fire's cause wasn't immediately known and likely won't be until after it's out, officials said. No serious injuries were reported.
US Environmental Protection Agency testing by mid-morning Wednesday had not identified toxic compounds, such as styrene or benzene, with air quality monitoring set to continue as smoke dissipates, emergency response on-scene coordinator Jason Sewell said. The agency collected measurements "all over night" and through Wednesday, monitoring particulate matter and looking for toxic chemicals.
Even before that, though, Brenda Jerrell "didn't hesitate" to leave her home near railroad tracks close to the burning facility, she told CNN, noting, "The smell had already been bad."
"I didn't have shoes on; I had socks on," she said. "I left my purse, my shoes -- I left a lot of things, personal things ... and just got in the car and drove away." Covering her mouth and nose with a mask, Jerrell was "still worried because they're telling us they don't know what was burning and that, you know, irritation may occur."
The towering smoke plume and health concerns recall the inferno and draining of hazardous materials set off by a freight train derailment and fire this year in East Palestine, Ohio. High levels of some chemicals recorded during that disaster could pose long-term risks, researchers have said.
The Indiana evacuation order was issued for residents within a half-mile of the fire, and authorities could change it if wind direction shifts, Jones said. Residents downwind of the evacuation zone -- to the east and northeast -- were encouraged to shelter in place and bring pets indoors. About 35,000 people live in the city some 70 miles east of Indianapolis, where shelters opened Tuesday, Snow said.
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The Richmond Community School District canceled classes Wednesday and urged people to shelter in place.
Residents who find remnants from the fire in their yards were asked to "not disturb or touch the debris" since "it is unknown what chemicals may or may not be in the debris," Wayne County Emergency Management Agency officials said. They could contain asbestos, Sewell said.
For now, the main health concern is smoke, Wayne County Health Department Executive Director Christine Stinson said Wednesday.
"These are very fine particles -- and if they're breathed in can cause all kinds of respiratory problems: burning of the eyes, tightening of the chest, it could aggravate asthma, cause bronchitis and all kinds of things," she said.
The EPA will "absolutely" be involved in monitoring air quality in Richmond, its administrator told CNN on Wednesday.
"We're going to keep the emergency response group on the ground, up-to-speed on what those results are," Michael Regan said, adding EPA was "on the ground just hours after" the fire started. "We've been on site since the beginning, and we're going to stay there until we can assure that this community is not seeing any threats from the air quality implications here."
Toxic pollutants could pose risks, experts say
N95 masks -- the kind widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic -- are most protective against particulate matter in the area, but if people are seeing or smelling smoke or experiencing symptoms, they should leave, Stinson said.
Planet-warming pollution also surely is being emitted from the fire, said former Regional EPA Administrator Judith Enck, now president of Beyond Plastics, which aims to end plastic pollution.
"But the bigger issue is that when plastics are burned, dioxin is often formed," she told CNN, referring to what the EPA describes as highly toxic pollutants that can cause cancer and take a long time to break down.
Dioxin tests must be done by state officials, she said, noting, "Even small amounts can cause significant health damage." Phthalates, bisphenols and microplastics are also released when plastics are burned, she added.
"Plastics burn hot and fast," Enck said. "Lots of chemicals can be released, so (plastic) should not be stockpiled."
Stockpiling, however, is a common problem at plastics recycling facilities since there are so few reliable domestic markets, she said.
The 175,000-square-foot facility burning in Richmond is "completely full from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall," city Fire Chief Tim Brown said Tuesday.
Melted plastics and roofing materials have been identified in pictures from residents as officials urged them not to handle fire debris, Sewell said. EPA officials plan to sample those materials and send them off for analysis, he said.
"Based on the age of the building, it's possible there could be asbestos-containing materials in some degree that would have left the site," he said Wednesday, referring to naturally occurring, toxic minerals long used in items from home insulation to hair dryers.
"We would ask that people certainly do not mow the debris," Sewell said. "If you're finding debris in your yard, leave it be until we know more information. Certainly, don't mow it up."
Blaze put firefighters 'into defensive mode'
Firefighters responded to the recycling facility Tuesday to find a semitrailer behind one of the plant's buildings engulfed in flames, Brown said. The trailer was loaded with an "unknown type of plastics," and the fire spread to other piles of plastics around the trailer and eventually to the building, Brown said.
Firefighters had trouble getting access to the facility, with piles of plastic blocking access roads, Brown said. "It creates quite a challenge because we only have access to one side of the building," he added.
"Once the fire got out of control, it darkened down on us, (and) we backed out real quick and then went into defensive mode," Brown said.
The flames spread to several buildings at the site, but crews managed to stop the fire's spread before it could jump into residential areas, Brown said.
"It's probably the largest fire I've seen in my career," Brown said.
One firefighter was released from a hospital after falling and hurting his ankle, Brown said, and no other injuries were reported. Everyone who was said to be working at the building when crews responded to the scene has been accounted for, he said.
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