Three years ago, a massive fire at an Indiana recycling plant started spewing toxic smoke. This prompted evacuations.
According to CNN's meeting minutes, a September 2019 hearing of Richmond's Unsafe Building Commission highlighted significant code violations at Richmond's recycling plant.
Seth Smith, owner of the recycling facility, acknowledged that conditions had become 'outof control' at the site and that one building had no fire extinguishing systems. He claimed that the fire system was destroyed by an auction company before he took over control.
According to the minutes, Smith stated that he had done a review of what was available and what it would cost to fix it.
Doug Gardner, Richmond's deputy fire chief noted that there was an "excessive quantity of plastic materials stored within and around the building" and that many of the stacks were unstable and some have fallen over.
Aaron Jordan, the city's commissioner for building, stated that boxes were stacked up to the ceiling inside the recycling plant building.
He also pointed out that some materials were too close at the property line, which could have been a fire hazard.
According to Jordan's minutes, 'If it caught on fire it'd catch the building next it on fire.' It should be at least 10 feet from the lot line.
Inspections at the site revealed widespread roof leakage and structural problems with its buildings.
Gardner requested that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conduct an 'air plume analysis' to determine the density and properties of the air. This was done to determine the potential for a fire to occur. According to records, the study raised concerns about possible evacuations.
CNN tried to reach NOAA and Richmond for a copy, but was unsuccessful.
The plant's raging fire has forced thousands to evacuate since Tuesday. Many are now wondering what the effects of the thick, toxic smoke on their health and communities.
According to Indiana State Fire Marshal Steve Jones, plastics can cause a "host of different chemicals" when they catch fire.
Jones stated Tuesday that the smoke rising from this site is 'definitely poisonous'
In 2020, a court declared the property unsafe.
Smith, the plant owner made comments in the minutes of the 2019 meeting and committed to cleaning up the site.
The building commission granted a one month extension to investigate a plan of actions. In October 2019, it met again and issued formal findings that the properties were unsafe.
According to records, the commission determined that the 'cumulative effects of code violations present' made the premises unsafe, substandard or a threat to the safety and health of the public.
Smith was also required to repair, demolish, and vacate the properties within the next 60-day period. Smith and his company filed a petition to a court to overturn the orders of the commission deeming Smith's properties unsafe.
A judge from Indiana's circuit court ruled in favor the city and confirmed the commission's orders requiring Smith fix conditions at his locations. The court found that Smith's properties were 'unsafe to people and property; constitute fire hazard; are hazardous to public health; constitute nuisance; and pose a danger to property or people because of violations to statute and City Ordinance regarding building condition and maintenance.
CNN reached out to Smith but did not receive a reply. Smith's previous attorney declined to comment.
Last year, the city seized land
After Smith failed to pay property tax, two of three parcels on which the recycling plant is located were seized by the city in 2022.
"We have taken several steps to get this business owner to clean up the property since then, as we knew that it was a fire hazard," Richmond Mayor Dave Snow stated at a Wednesday morning news conference.
It is unclear at the moment what city steps were taken to correct the site following the seizure and whether any steps were taken before 2022 to enforce Smith's orders for Smith to demolish or repair the properties and vacate them.
AJ Sickmann, the city attorney, stated to CNN that cleaning up these sites was a difficult task. "The city tried to resolve the problem with all its resources, but the fire broke out before it could be fully remedied.
We don't know the exact cause of this fire. According to the mayor, fire crews responded initially to calls about a fire in a structure. According to Brown, the fire chief, firefighters arrived at the scene to find a semitrailer in flames behind a structure. The flames spread to other piles of plastics surrounding the trailer, eventually reaching the building.
Snow, the mayor said that 'our access was very hindered by the rubbish and the piles plastic that were around the complex. "Yesterday, we only had one access to the entire structure. We'll be using excavators today to gain access to the deeper firewood.