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Richmond residents sue owner of property where massive industrial fire occurred

Evacuation area day after plastics fire started in Richmond
Chris Welter
Evacuation area day after plastics fire started in Richmond

A class action lawsuit has been filed against the owner of a former plastics recycling center that caught on fire in Richmond, Indiana earlier this month.

Local businesses and neighbors filing the suit allege the massive industrial fire that burned for days caused health problems, hurt the economy, and lowered property values. The people suing all live or work in the former half-mile radius evacuation zone surrounding the fire.

They had to flee their homes and businesses shortly after the fire started on Tuesday, April 11 because of toxic smoke. They were then told to stay away for at least five days by local officials.

Those residents should be compensated for their troubles, said Trevor Crossen, the Indiana-based attorney representing them.

“Everybody is just really frustrated with the city, with the business owner,” Crossen said. “Especially when you talk about an accident that was more than likely preventable.”

The property that caught on fire had previously received an unsafe building order from the City of Richmond in 2019. Some of the legal documents related to the property have been provided to the media and the public by the City of Richmond and can be found here.

Richmond Mayor Dave Snow said the day after the blaze began that the city intends to pursue holding the property owner responsible. He called the owner "negligent" and "irresponsible."

"We were aware that what was operating here was a fire hazard," Snow said during a news conference. "This was a fear for us and why we had taken so many steps to prevent this from happening. That business owner is fully responsible for all of this."

The city has previously taken ownership of a portion of the property during a tax sale in an attempt to hold the owner responsible for cleaning it up, Snow said.

A large plume of black smoke fills the sky.
Kevin Shook
Global Media Enterprise
Heavy, thick black smoke from a recycling plant fire could be seen as far away as Dayton.

But Crossen said that because the city owned some of the property, his clients did intend to include the City of Richmond in their lawsuit. That’s because, he said, the city should have done more to deal with the hazards on the property before it .

The owner of the recycling facility, Seth Smith, didn’t return WYSO’s request for comment by publication.

Even though the fire is out, Crossen said some of his clients who filed the suit are in a tough spot. One is getting injections for a rash that Crossen said developed after the fire. Another has a child with severe allergies and hasn't been able to return home because of lingering air quality problems in the evacuation zone.

“So they're still at a hotel that they can barely even afford, so it will be those sort of damages,” he said. “Then on the business side, there are lost profits from having to be closed down for several days.”

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

Chris Welter is the Managing Editor at The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.

Chris got his start in radio in 2017 when he completed a six-month training at the Center for Community Voices. Most recently, he worked as a substitute host and the Environment Reporter at WYSO.
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