The fire that broke out in the recycling warehouse is a stark reminder of the pollution that comes from plastic
The City of Richmond vs. the Richmond Building Commission: Response to concerns about the wastewater recycling plant and its violation of the EPA air quality code
Records show that local leaders had been raising concerns about the recycling plant being unsafe and code violations since at least 2019.
The EPA has been monitoring the air quality in Richmond to check for a host of pollutants that are typical of plastic fires. The EPA air monitors at the center of the evacuated area have detected a large number of harmful gasses.
In the meantime, an evacuation order remains in effect for the approximately 2,000 residents who live within a half-mile radius of the plant. Others who live downwind of the evacuation zone are urged to shelter in place and avoid smoke exposure.
In 2019, the city’s Unsafe Building 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,” according to meeting minutes obtained by CNN.
During a hearing by the commission, the plant’s owner, Seth Smith, admitted that one of the buildings on the property had no fire extinguishing system, the records show.
CNN tried to speak to Smith, but did not get a response. Smith was involved in a related lawsuit with the attorney that previously represented him.
The Wayne County Fire Marshal’s Office is considering a city order to clean up the PHENIX complex after the Covid-19 blaze
It will likely be several days before the fire stops burning and investigators can safely enter the plant to begin assessing its cause, according to the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
The plant’s owner was accused of ignoring a city order to clean up the property after the mayor said that city officials were aware that the facility was a fire hazard.
The chief of the fire department said at the press conference that they are looking at close to 14 acres of plastic. The entire complex is burning.
The responsibility of negligent business owners is to blame for the fires and damages, as well as the risk of first responders.
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 toxins have yet to be detected, the primary health concern to residents so far is particulate matter – fine particles found in smoke – that could cause respiratory problems if inhaled, Wayne County Health Department Executive Director Christine Stinson said.
N95 masks – the kind widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic – could be used as a protective measure against the particles, but people should leave an area if they see or smell smoke or experience symptoms, Stinson said.
Even after the blaze is out, officials need to assess whether there are any lingering chemicals from the fire that need to be cleaned up before residents can return to their homes. They’ve already warned people not to touch any debris around their homes, which might also contain asbestos from the warehouse buildings.
Air quality tests conducted by the EPA found no evidence of toxic chemicals such as styrene or benzene as of mid-Wednesday morning, though tests are continuing as the smoke settles.
He said exposure to a high amount of toxins for a long time could lead to an increased risk of cancer.
What is the worst place to put a plastic waste warehouse? How many plastics are recycled? An epidemiologist’s perspective on the Richmond fires
Another solution offered by the industry is to burn plastic as a fuel. A form of chemical recycling that converts plastic into a fuel is called chemical recycling. That’s what a new plant not far from Richmond plans to do, although Inside Climate News reports that the operation has been mired with delays.
Short-term symptoms could include headaches, nausea, coughing, and fatigue. “Asthma is regularly triggered by these types of complicated exposures so if you have asthma, it’s really important to be extra careful,” he said.
Last night, the City of Richmond said the fire was finally “under control.” But there’s still no word yet on when the air and environment will be safe enough for residents in the evacuation zone to return as the rubble continues to smolder.
I watched the operation of the plastic waste. I was absolutely horrified. She told The Verge that she started reading about the fires. The plastic waste brokers and so-called recyclers are putting plastic in warehouses.
It’s riskiest, he says, for people with a history of heart and lung conditions. And that’s often more common in areas where people live near industrial facilities, like this plastics recycling warehouse.
Even before the blaze there began, the surrounding neighborhood ranked in the 90th percentile for smog exposure and asthma risk, according to the EPA’s environmental justice screening tool. That means just 10 percent of Indiana residents live in places with greater exposure to smog or a higher risk of developing asthma.
The fire inrichmond is extraordinary due to its size and severity But fires aren’t uncommon at plastic recycling facilities. Retired chemical engineer Jan Dell has mapped 70 of them since 2019, when she founded a nonprofit that tackles plastic pollution called The Last Beach Cleanup. She worked as a consultant to many companies in the oil, gas and manufacturing industry to conduct safety audits for different types of facilities.
Why is it sitting? When it comes to plastics in particular, recycling is mostly a myth. Only 9 percent of plastic waste has ever been recycled, research has found. The quality of the plastic deteriorates with each reuse, so even materials that are reused are most often “downcycled.”
Plastic bottles are often turned into fibers used for carpeting, for example. The material can only be recycled so many times before it ends up in the trash. The kind of plastic used to make beverage bottles happens to be one of the easier types to reuse. And yet recycling facilities only have the capacity to process about 20 percent of it in the US, a Greenpeace report estimated last year.
The process of chemical recycling causes more pollution because it eventually ends with burning fuel. A scientist studying toxic chemicals at the Natural Resources Defense Council says it is just more greenwashing.