Spontaneous combustion caused by a contractor placing chemicals too close together led to a chemical fire at an abandoned factory that forced evacuations in a northern Indiana city, the Environmental Protection Agency says.
The EPA’s incident report on Friday night’s fire in Mishawaka states that contractors the federal agency hired to clean the site placed cyanide and sodium hydrosulfite together in the Baycote building. Sodium hydrosulfite is a highly reactive chemical, the report says, and the combination is likely what caused the fire to ignite.
However, the official cause remains under investigation.
The fire produced a large smoke cloud that prompted officials to evacuate homes within a one-mile radius of the shuttered factory that’s in the midst of an EPA-supervised cleanup.
Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood told WSBT-TV that the fire at the former electroplating and metal finishing business “could have been much, much worse.”
“The building was literally corroding from within. The roof was collapsing, beams were corroding, tanks were corroding,” Wood said.
The business’ former owners closed the plant in 2008, leaving behind tens of thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals at the site, about 10 miles east of South Bend.
The EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Paul Atkociunas, said some materials in the building were incorrectly marked and difficult to identify when contractors started cleaning up more than 50,000 gallons of chemicals at the site in May.
“There were hundreds of containers, in vats and material in pits and sledges. We have the characterization and understanding that there were acids and caustics involved, cyanides present, heavy metals,” he said.
Mistakes like the one EPA contractors made by accidentally putting chemicals too close together are rare, Atkociunas said.
Environmentalist Marc Nelson said the building remains dangerous and “will not be safe until all the chemicals are removed.”
Atkociunas said the EPA plans to have the cleanup finished by November.
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