Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch enjoyed a celebration and viewed devastation May 9 during a spur-of-the-moment visit to Richmond.

Crouch participated in a ribbon-cutting ceremony as Test Intermediate School celebrated its 100th year, then she visited the site of the April 11 plastics fire, getting a firsthand look at the rubble remaining on the 13.8-acre site. A cancellation freed some afternoon time, so she called Mayor Dave Snow about visiting the fire site.

“I told her I had an appointment for the 100th anniversary of Test Intermediate, and I said, ‘Why don’t you come join me,’ and she said, ‘That sounds like a great idea,’” said Snow, adding that Crouch regularly calls to check up on Richmond.

“Whenever you can be around young people that are going to be the future of Indiana, it’s very uplifting and inspiring, and it was a celebration I was thrilled to take a part in,” Crouch said.

Test, which was built in 1922-23, was named after Julia E. Test, who spent 50 years as a Richmond educator. It’s the only Richmond Community Schools building named after a woman.

“For me, it was fun, but it also was hopeful, and I’m optimistic for the future because we have a school that’s 100 years educating young people, preparing them for the future, leading Indiana forward, and it was all because of a woman,” Crouch said. “What an inspiration to the young girls that came through the doors of Test Intermediate School.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony May 9 helped celebrate Test Intermediate School’s 100th year. Supplied by James Holden/Lt. Gov. Crouch’s staff

After leaving Test, Crouch arrived at a gravel parking lot along North West F Street and looked at the twisted metal and other fire debris. Fire Chief Tim Brown and Snow explained to her what occurred nearly a month prior.

“Like Americans all over the country, I was horrified seeing the pictures and hearing reports from Richmond about this fire and have been wanting to come and be supportive and let Richmond know that the state has been here helping through the Department of Homeland Security, but we want Richmond to know that we’re here to be a partner and to be walking with them throughout the whole process, from now to the end,” Crouch said.

There’s a stark visual contrast from the North West F parking lot. The destruction is surrounded by unharmed buildings, and Crouch took note of that.

“When I look at this kind of devastation, I have more respect for our firefighters and our emergency responders and the job they do and being able to contain something this devastating and huge without any injuries and protecting the neighbors that abut the property,” she said. “Kudos to the city of Richmond first responders and to everyone who turned out to keep this from being the disaster that it could have been.”

While learning about the fire, Crouch asked Snow and State Rep. Brad Barrett about legislative possibilities to help communities deal with property owners. Seth Smith, who owns Cornerstone Trading Group, had been cited by the city’s Unsafe Building Commission and lost a court challenge to that citation. Still, he made little, if any, progress in cleaning up the three properties where he stored his business’ plastics.

“What do you do when you have landowners that ignore citations, ignore the warnings, totally disregard the law and allow these kinds of events to take place?” Crouch said. “Is there something that we need to do more? And I’m not a proponent of more laws, trust me, but I also believe that people should be accountable and responsible, and we need to be able to hold them accountable.”

Before the fire was even out, the city indicated it would use legal means to hold Smith accountable for expenses from fighting the fire and from the resulting cleanup. Snow said cleanup costs are still being calculated.

The city should soon know what state agencies might assist in a cleanup and if there will be financial assistance, he said.

“We are working closely with IDEM, Indiana Department of Homeland Security,” Snow said. “(Crouch) is a part of overseeing these departments, so she wanted to make sure that everyone is meeting with us, answering our questions and playing their role in the partnership. I’ve assured her they are.

“She wanted to see the site for herself, so she can foster great discussions in helping us get this cleaned up, so I just really appreciate her taking the time to do this.”

The city worked with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the state Department of Homeland Security to formally request the Environmental Protection Agency undertake an environmental investigation and immediate removal of materials at or near the site, according to a May 11 news release. The city also has secured an environmental consultant to monitor the cleanup. 

The cleanup process includes identification of materials and debris that was to begin May 15 with EPA sampling. A removal plan will be developed and executed. Snow told Crouch that the debris will be washed and wrapped as it’s being removed from the site. 

Follow-up environmental testing will also be conducted, according to the release.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 17 2023 print edition of the Western Wayne News.

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