The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will fund and perform the hazardous waste cleanup on two Richmond-owned properties where an April industrial fire occurred.

The EPA and city announced last week that heavy equipment would begin appearing as soon as this week for the cleanup of 310 N.W. F St. and 358 N.W. F St. The actual cleanup, which is expected to use about $2.8 million of EPA funds, will begin in November, according to a news release.

During May, the EPA collected 54 samples — 25 of soil and debris and 29 of possible asbestos-containing materials — at the fire site for laboratory analysis. Based on that analysis, the EPA will conduct emergency removal actions on the city-owned properties for asbestos-containing material, lead and antimony.

Those materials will not be placed in local landfills, but will be transported to appropriate hazardous waste facilities.

“The city of Richmond’s top priority is protecting our residents,” Mayor Dave Snow said in the release. “The EPA’s cleanup operation is an essential step towards ensuring their safety and the environmental health of our community. We will continue to work closely with the EPA as we move forward in addressing this unfortunate situation.”

The EPA’s investigation did not identify materials requiring EPA cleanup at 308 N.W. F St., which remains owned by Cornerstone Trading Group and Seth Smith. Cornerstone stored plastics on all three North West F Street properties that burned in the fire that began April 11.

Cornerstone Trading Group and Seth Smith are responsible for cleaning up rubble at 308 N.W. F St. that resulted from the April 11 industrial fire. Photo by Mike Emery

The EPA issued a liability letter to Cornerstone, but not to the city, the release said. Within a legal filing related to a class-action lawsuit that names Cornerstone, Smith and the city as defendants, the city indicates that the EPA on Sept. 7 informed Cornerstone that it would be responsible for cleanup of its property, 308 N.W F St., the easternmost of the three properties. Cornerstone has not yet conducted any cleanup.

In that crossclaim, the city seeks judgment against Cornerstone and Smith for damages and costs incurred because of the fire, environmental investigation and lawsuit.

Tushawn Craig and Marquetta Stokes filed the class-action lawsuit seeking $25,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for possibly about 2,000 residents and businesses who could be eligible to join the lawsuit. Only Cornerstone and Smith were originally listed as defendants; however, an amended complaint added the city as a third defendant.

The city then had the lawsuit transferred from a Wayne County court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. In its answer to the plaintiffs’ complaint, the city denies wrongdoing and places blame squarely on Cornerstone and Smith. The crossclaim filed Oct. 10 calls Cornerstone’s collection of plastics on the city-owned properties an “unauthorized invasion” and says Cornerstone’s negligence caused the fire.

Smith, who originally operated his company as My-Way Trading, expanded storage of plastics from its North West F Street property onto the adjoining properties that had been vacated. Eventually, the city took Cornerstone and Smith before its Unsafe Building Commission and received orders for Smith to clean up the properties, which were identified as a fire hazard. A court upheld the orders when Smith appealed.

Smith did not remediate the problem, and utilizing tax sale rules, the city took ownership of the two properties and attempted to force Smith’s compliance. The city has said remediation was slowly occurring when the fire began April 11.

The fire’s large smoke plume carried toxic materials across the city and into Ohio. A half-mile evacuation zone was ordered around the fire, which burned for several days. The evacuation order was not lifted until April 16.

The EPA conducted air-quality tests and analyzed debris carried by the smoke. It found asbestos in some debris and took charge of collecting debris in Indiana and Ohio. It removed debris from 330 properties, completing that task May 4.

Richmond Fire Department and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigated the fire’s cause, conducting interviews and viewing security video. Their final report has not yet been released.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 25 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

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