Talisha Spicher’s family has experienced breathing problems, coughs, sore throats and headaches since returning to their Linden Court home after Richmond’s plastics fire.

Still, she had one main objective when attending an April 25 informational session at Fairview Elementary School.

“We want to know if the soil is safe for our kids,” said Spicher, who has six children. “Our kids go out and play and throw dirt at each other, and we want to know if it’s safe for our kids to go out and be kids.”

She spoke to Environmental Protection Agency representatives, the Wayne County Health Department and Mayor Dave Snow, but Spicher left without the information she sought.

“It’s a dog and pony show,” she said. “Still no answers on whether it’s safe for our kids to play.”

Residents were invited to Fairview to speak with Indiana, Ohio and local agencies involved in the fire aftermath, see air and water testing results, and pick up packages of cleaning supplies. Snow said the idea was to “demystify” the recovery process following the April 11 fire at a 13.8-acre plastics recycling and resale complex that forced residents from their homes for up to five days before the evacuation order was lifted April 16.

Spicher’s family left April 12 and spent four days in a hotel. She said that the night of April 11 smoke enveloped their home about three blocks from the fire site.

“The stuff is bad. It stunk; it was horrible,” Spicher said. “We didn’t smell a lot the first day, but as soon as the sun went down, then you could smell it and you could see it and you could feel it. It’s a mess. It’s been stressful. It’s been horrible.”

Spicher took one of her children to Reid Health’s Urgent Care facility because of breathing problems. The solution was a breathing treatment machine; however, Reid didn’t have any more available. Instead, an inhaler with attachments was ordered to alleviate the breathing difficulty when it arrived days later.

Dust from the fire infiltrated the Spichers’ home even though their window air-conditioning units had yet to be installed for the year, “so obviously, it was bad,” Spicher said. 

Asked if she felt safe in her home, Spicher said, “No. No, but we have to live somewhere.”

Talisha Spicher speaks with Mayor Dave Snow and Beth Fields, the city’s director of strategic initiatives, during an informational event April 25 at Fairview Elementary School. Photo by Mike Emery

She was told to have her children wear N95 masks and long sleeves when playing outdoors.

“We set our homes and yards up for our children,” she said. “We need to know that they can go out there into their safe space and play and be kids. That’s what we want.”

Spicher did sign up for the EPA contractor collecting debris to check her home and property. The EPA provided access agreements to allow the contractor on properties. Allen Jarrell, the federal on-scene coordinator, said he was happy with the first hour’s turnout at Fairview.

“I’m actually very surprised and glad that people are coming out,” he said. “Hopefully, from this, they can feel safe and sure that we are more than happy to come and pick up any debris from the fire that deposited on their properties. We’ll be here to continue doing it as long as we hear that people need us.”

Whitewater River water testing was also continuing until the Indiana Department of Emergency Management ended it, said Pat Smoker, director of Richmond Sanitary District. Indiana American Water drinking water was never contaminated, and Smoker said the river was not showing contamination, either. The state has deemed the river impaired for two decades so swimming is ill-advised, anyway.

“Can I see anything from the fire that we monitored in the river? The answer is no,” Smoker said.

Kebra Hoskins, though, wonders what might show up in the months and years ahead.

“I’m not trying to be pessimistic, I’m still trying to be optimistic, but we don’t know what could be found in people’s system health-wise down the road,” she said.

Hoskins, who lives on North West G Street and has not felt any health effects, left Fairview with two packages of cleaning supplies, informational booklets and flyers, and said her questions were answered.

After returning from the evacuation, Hoskins smelled smoke inside her home for a couple of days. She wasn’t sure about debris on her property.

“I didn’t go out looking for anything until several days later, because I didn’t want to stir up something,” Hoskins said. “And then, walking on it, what was I going to track inside my home? I didn’t take a chance. I would come in the house, lock everything up and stay in.”

She said she did feel safe inside her home because the fire department continued to monitor the fire site for flare-ups until eight days after the fire began. Richmond Fire Chief Tim Brown said April 25 that the most recent fire flare-up had occurred April 22. 

“I feel safe in that regard,” Hoskins said. “You can go on with life as normal as you can. You focus on it too long or keep focusing on it, you won’t be able to function. I’ve got to function and move on.”

The fire seemed like a movie to Hoskins while she took pictures of what was happening. She was glad the fire didn’t turn out any worse and considers it a warning for people who, like plastics company Cornerstone Trading Group, receive cleanup orders from the city’s code enforcement department of the Unsafe Building Commission.

“I hope that this wakes us up to say if you’ve been cited, if you’ve been warned about something, if someone has said take care of this or that, just do it, because it’s not only affecting your family, it can affect a community, a city, a region,” Hoskins said.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 3 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

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