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Big Indiana plastics fire is fully extinguished, mayor says

Apr 14, 2023, 6:05 AM

Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., Thursday, April 13, 2023. Multiple...

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)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) — A major industrial fire fueled by tons of scrap plastics in an Indiana city has been fully extinguished, although an evacuation order for people living nearby remains in place, the city’s mayor said.

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow tweeted Thursday night that the fire chief of the eastern Indiana city had informed him that “the fire has been fully extinguished ahead of schedule.”

Officials had said earlier Thursday that the fire, which began Tuesday afternoon, was close to being extinguished at the 14-acre former factory site in Richmond, a city of 35,000 about 70 miles (115 kilometers) east of Indianapolis, near the Ohio border.

An evacuation order for at least 1,500 people living within a half-mile was still in effect Friday morning, but Snow said in his tweet that “we’re now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples to determine when the evacuation order can be lifted.”

Fire Chief Tim Brown was not available Friday morning to provide an update, another fire official said. A message seeking an update was left Friday morning for Snow, whose assistant said he was in a meeting.

Clouds of black smoke marred the spring sky after the fire began Tuesday. By Thursday afternoon, the smoke was lighter and less dense after progress in dousing the fires.

Brown said Thursday that the site had six buildings full of plastics “floor to ceiling and wall to wall” but that he expected the fires to be out by late Thursday or Friday morning.

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 found.

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

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.

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 Thursday.

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