Rubble from the April 2023 plastics fire in Richmond remains on just one lot, and cleanup efforts now appear underway there.

Large equipment has worked onsite at 308 N.W. F St., the parcel owned by Seth Smith and Cornerstone Trading Group. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed Smith that he would be responsible for cleaning up his lot.

The EPA cleared the city-owned 310 and 358 N.W. F St. lots because they contained asbestos-containing material. The cleanup that began in November 2023 was expected to cost $2.8 million. 

The city, which in 2019 received Unsafe Building Commission orders against Smith and Cornerstone, acquired the two properties through a tax-sale process and was working with Smith to clear them of stored plastics for the recycling business.

With no hazardous material found at 308 N.W. F St., the EPA did not clean that property. Mayor Ron Oler had indicated the city might eventually need to clean up Cornerstone’s property; however, when informed about the cleanup efforts, Oler confirmed they did not involve the city.

The April 11, 2023, fire began at 358 N.W. F St. and involved all three properties filled with Cornerstone’s plastics. The fire sent a large, black plume of toxic smoke into the air and scattered debris into Ohio. The fire also destroyed warehouses and equipment at the neighboring Martin Ekwealor Pharmaceuticals Inc., which also has been cleared of debris.

Residents within a half-mile were evacuated while Richmond Fire Department extinguished the blaze, returning April 16 when the evacuation order was lifted. Tushawn Craig and Marquetta Stokes, two residents who evacuated, filed a class-action lawsuit against Smith, Cornerstone and the city.

The city had jurisdiction over the lawsuit moved from Wayne County to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. The lawsuit is scheduled to be ready in December for a three-week trial, according to a case-management plan.

In the most recent activity, Craig and Stokes have limited the proposed class of individuals eligible to join the lawsuit to those within the evacuation zone rather than anyone impacted by smoke and debris, which would have included Ohio residents. The city has filed a crossclaim against Smith and Cornerstone, indicating they are to blame for the fire and are responsible for any resulting liability to residents.

Smith and Cornerstone deny fault or liability because the fire started on a city-owned property. They also claim the fire was started by an arsonist; however, the state fire marshal continues an investigation and no cause has been officially determined.

Ekwealor Pharmaceuticals also has filed a lawsuit against Smith, Cornerstone and the city because of its damages. The city and Smith/Cornerstone have filed motions to dismiss portions of the company’s lawsuit.

The city also filed a crossclaim in this lawsuit, with Smith/Cornerstone asking the crossclaim be dismissed because it’s the same as was filed in the class-action lawsuit.

A hearing is scheduled Aug. 14 in Wayne County Superior Court 2 on the three motions for dismissals.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 3 2024 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

Mike Emery is a reporter and layout editor for the Western Wayne News.