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Indiana recycling facility had been cited for fire hazards years before this week’s massive blaze

The site’s operator was issued several cleanup orders in 2019 by a city commission that said it had excessive amounts of combustible plastics, a faulty sprinkler system and no working fire suppression system, among other hazards.
Firefighters walk out of the site of an industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., on April 12, 2023.
Firefighters walk out of the site of an industrial fire Wednesday in Richmond, Ind. Michael Conroy / AP

The Indiana recycling facility where a massive fire broke out Tuesday, causing thousands to evacuate over concerns about toxic fumes, had been cited over building violations including several fire hazards, court and city documents linked to the facility’s owner show. 

The site, which held large amounts of shredded and bulk recycled plastic, had been occupied for years by My-Way Trading Inc., whose owner, Seth Smith, had been at odds with Richmond city officials for several years before the city seized some of the property last year. It is not clear if My-Way was still operating at the site when the fire broke out.

Without naming Smith directly, Richmond Mayor David Snow said the business owner was “fully responsible” for the blaze after having previously been ordered to clean up the facility’s fire hazards. 

“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,” Snow said Wednesday. 

But some residents have blamed the city, saying it took over the site and then failed to clean it up.

News: Cornerstone Trading Group recycling
Material waits to be recycled on the property of Cornerstone Trading Group in Richmond, Ind., in 2019. Jason Truitt / USA Today Network file

“The city was fully aware of the last four years and they’ve had full control of the property for months, so why didn’t they clean it up with all the resources available to them?” said Darrell Wilson, 48, a Richmond resident who owns property that abuts the My Way Trading warehouse site. 

According to minutes from a September 2019 hearing, Smith was issued several cleanup orders by the city’s Unsafe Building Commission, which said the property had several code violations, including excessive amounts of combustible plastics, a faulty sprinkler system and no working fire suppression system. The commission also said cardboard on the site was kept too close to the property line and that fire department access to the site was blocked. 

Smith, whose business later changed its name from My-Way Trading Inc. to Cornerstone Trading Group, had been given a deadline of 30, 60 and eventually 90 days to bring the facility up to code with the city saying it would be willing to work with him if he was unable to meet the deadline. 

Smith filed a complaint asking for a judicial review of the commission’s order, saying that his due process was violated and that it would be impossible to remediate in time, among other reasons. 

A judge sided with the city commission in March 2020 stating that the evidence presented “clearly established that the structures in which the Plaintiffs have an interest 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.”

Smith did not respond to an email requesting comment. An attorney who represented Smith before the Unsafe Building Commission also did not return a request for comment. 

The city made plans to acquire the crumbling property, which also had structural and roof damage, from Smith in June 2020 in an effort to remediate, demolish and reuse the site, according to the Richmond Palladium-Item, a local newspaper.

Property records show that the city took ownership of two of the three parcels on which the facility sits in 2022. 

The city of Richmond is listed as the deed owner in 2022 land and tax records of the address that the Richmond Police Department gave as the site of the fire. 

In a statement to NBC News, Kimberly A. Vessels, the assistant city attorney for the city of Richmond, said the city seized a major part of the property after the owner failed to pay taxes in order to “allow it the opportunity to conduct the remediation work while still holding the property owner responsible."

Darrell Wilson, who spoke in support of Smith at the 2019 hearing, said that he evacuated once the fire spread Tuesday but that he holds the city responsible for the blaze instead of Smith. 

Wilson said he hadn’t seen Smith near the property since September 2022 when he said the city seized control of the property. Smith, Wilson said, had been trying to clean up the site, but the job was too big for him. 

“If I were to assume your property because you were negligent and didn’t take care of it and it’s dangerous, you would think that the main obligation would be to get it up to code as quickly as possible,” Wilson said. 

Other Richmond residents are also questioning why the city didn’t step up sooner to clean the site it partly owned. 

Chris Farley, 44, who lives in the city, said it was well known among residents that the city had taken over a large part of the site.

“I feel that the city is responsible for this,” Farley said, adding that the town has smelled like burnt rubber for days. “The mayor keeps blaming this person, but it’s the city who did nothing to clean it up because they had it.” 

“They didn’t even try to knock down the building or try to even remove any of that plastic or anything,” Farley said.

Vessels, the assistant city attorney, said “the City was devoting available resources to abate the problem, but unfortunately the fire occurred before complete remediation could occur.”

In a news conference Thursday, city officials said there was a long process to comply with after it gained ownership, which included obtaining an EPA grant for clean up. The city said it also entered into an agreement with the business owner that would provide him the ability to remove materials due to bank owned security interest. 

“So it wasn’t as though the city could just go start removing these and disposing of them because of that collateral that the bank had, and so that was the plan, unfortunately with the pandemic became a down market and the business owner had some difficulties in selling those materials, but was actively doing that and the city was monitoring that process,” city attorney Andrew J. Sickmann said Thursday.

Sickmann said legal and financial responsibility for the site rests with the owner. 

“The city didn’t create this problem and when it became aware of the magnitude of the issue … it immediately began the unsafe building process,” Sickmann said. "It’s his mess. It’s been shown again and again that this is his mess, his responsibility, his money to clean it up.”

As of Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management are still assessing the severity and toxicity of the fire, but the EPA said it detected “asbestos-containing materials” due to the age of the building. 

 Smoke rises from a former factory site in Richmond, Ind., on April 11, 2023.
Smoke rises from a former factory site in Richmond, Ind., on Tuesday. Julie Roe / via AP

Jason Sewell, an on-scene coordinator for the EPA, said at a news conference Wednesday that the agency is testing for various toxins, including styrene and benzene.

Officials declared mandatory evacuations for those within a half-mile of the blaze, which included up to 2,000 residents, according to the state Department of Homeland Security.

Richmond is about 70 miles east of Indianapolis and has a population around 35,700. 

“There’s a host of different chemicals plastics give off when they’re on fire,” state Fire Marshal Steve Jones said at a news conference Tuesday. “It’s concerning.”

Investigations are ongoing as to what ignited the fire at the 175,000-square-foot facility, Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said. He said the origin was a tractor-trailer, although it wasn’t clear whether its cargo was the main fuel.

“We wish the property owner and the business owner would have taken this more serious from day one,” Snow said at a Wednesday news conference. “This person has been negligent and irresponsible, and it’s led to putting a lot of people in danger today.”