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A 2019 hearing detailed potential fire hazards at the now-burning Indiana recycling plant, and its owner admitted a building did not have fire sprinklers

<i>Michael Conroy/AP</i><br/>Firefighters walk out of the site of the recycling plant fire in Richmond
Michael Conroy/AP
Firefighters walk out of the site of the recycling plant fire in Richmond

By Paul P. Murphy, CNN

More than three years before a large blaze at an eastern Indiana recycling plant began spewing toxic smoke and prompting evacuations, potential fire hazards at the facility had been detailed at a meeting with local leaders.

A September 2019 hearing by the city of Richmond’s Unsafe Building Commission outlined significant code violations at the recycling plant in Richmond, according to meeting minutes obtained by CNN.

At the 2019 meeting, Seth Smith, the owner of the recycling plant, admitted conditions at the plant had gotten “out of control,” and that one of the buildings at the site had no fire extinguishing system, claiming that an auction company selling the land destroyed the fire system before he took control of it.

“I took a review of what was there and what it would take to do it and basically, no fixing that (fire sprinkler) system,” Smith said, according to the minutes.

Richmond’s deputy fire chief, Doug Gardner, noted at the hearing there was an “excessive amount of plastic materials stored in and around the building,” and that “many of the stacks are unstable and several have fallen over.”

Aaron Jordan, the city’s building commissioner, said that inside the recycling plant building, “there are boxes stacked up all the way to the ceiling.”

He also noted that some of the materials were too close to the property line, which was a fire hazard.

“If it would catch on fire it would catch the building next to it on fire,” Jordan said, according to the minutes. “It needs to be 10 feet away from the lot line.”

Inspections at the site also found widespread roof leaks and structural issues with its buildings.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also conducted an “air plume study” of the properties at Gardner’s request to determine the density of the particles in the air in the event that a fire was to occur. The study “caused concerns for possible evacuations of the area,” records show.

CNN reached out to NOAA and the city of Richmond for a copy of that study but did not receive a response.

This week’s raging fire at the plant has forced evacuation orders for thousands of people since it started Tuesday, while many wonder what the impacts of the thick, toxic smoke may be on their health and community.

Among the burning items were plastics, which can give off a “host of different chemicals” when they’re on fire, Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones said.

The smoke rising from the site, Jones said Tuesday, is “definitely toxic.”

A court in 2020 found the property to be unsafe

In the 2019 meeting minutes, Smith, the plant owner, made comments committing to cleaning up the site.

After the building commission granted a one-month continuance to explore a plan of action, it reconvened in October 2019 and issued formal findings of fact that the properties were unsafe.

The commission found that the “cumulative effect of the code violations present” rendered “the premises unsafe, substandard, or a danger to the health and safety on the public,” records show.

The panel also ordered Smith to either repair or demolish and vacate the properties in the next 60 days. The next week, Smith and his company petitioned a court to review the commission’s orders deeming his properties unsafe.

In March 2020, an Indiana circuit court judge ruled in favor of the city, affirming the commission’s decisions requiring Smith to fix conditions at his sites. The court found the evidence “clearly established” that Smith’s properties “are unsafe to people and property; constitute a fire hazard; are a hazard to public health; constitute a nuisance; and are dangerous to people or property because of violations of statute and City Ordinance concerning building condition and maintenance.”

CNN reached out to Smith for comment but did not receive a response. The attorney that previously represented Smith in the lawsuit declined to comment.

City seized land last year

In 2022, the city seized two of the three land parcels the recycling plant sits on after Smith failed to pay property taxes.

“We have been through several steps since then to order this particular business owner to clean up this property, because we were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard,” Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said at a Wednesday morning news conference.

It’s unclear at this time what steps the city took to remedy the site since the seizure, and whether it took any steps before 2022 to enforce its orders requiring Smith to repair or demolish and vacate the properties.

“As you might imagine, cleaning up these sites is a significant undertaking,” city attorney AJ Sickmann told CNN. “The city was devoting available resources to abate the problems, but unfortunately the fire began before complete remediation could occur.”

Details about how this week’s fire started weren’t immediately available. The mayor said the fire department initially responded to reports of a structure fire. Firefighters arrived to see a semitrailer behind a building engulfed in flames, and it spread to other piles of plastics around the trailer and eventually to the building, according to Brown, the fire chief.

“Our access was very hampered by the rubbish and the piles of plastic that were surrounding the complex,” Snow, the mayor, said. “Yesterday we only had one way in to the entire structure. Today we’re going to use excavators to gain access and to get to the deeper seeds of the fire.”

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