Plumes of dark smoke billowed over the 70-foot-high burning mountain of scrap metal Friday morning at a metro area recycling plant, clouding the blaze burning in a sea of steel parts and painting the Kansas City, Kansas, sky black.
But as all this was happening, the Unified Government of Wyandotte County never sent any direct messaging to residents, some only a few blocks away, warning them of either the fire or possible air quality concerns.
The lack of a system for immediately notifying residents of public hazards left people confused and frustrated after smoke circulated from the Armourdale neighborhood and into northern Johnson County, where residents who signed up for a text-to-citizen service were warned to stay indoors just a few hours into the blaze due to potential air quality concerns.
Such a system does not exist for Wyandotte County residents.
Lifelong Argentine neighborhood resident Tina Medina, who is also hoping to represent the county’s Third District, was crossing the South 12th Street Bridge to pick up a friend Friday morning when she first saw the smoke.
“I saw a lot of black and gray smoke and I kinda panicked because I’m like ‘Oh my god. It’s this close,’” she said.
Medina turned her Toyota Echo around to escape the smoke, but felt concerned for the residents living only a few blocks away.
“Where’s the alarm? Where’s the warning?... And then I realized... within four blocks you have residents there! I know those people!”
The fire, which ignited around 5:28 a.m. Friday in the 1100 block of South 12th Street, burned through 500,000 cubic feet of material. The blaze continued to burn for at least 12 hours.
Seven Kansas City Kansas, Fire Department pumper trucks, three fire crews and a foam truck called in from Johnson County were needed to extinguish the flames. Tires burst in the heat at the scene, creating the sound of explosions, and propane tanks with residual fuel still inside posed a potential threat to air quality as the fire kept burning, according to Assistant Chief Scott Schaunaman, a spokesperson for the Kansas City, Kansas, department.
The recycling plant, Advantage Metals, is having their local team investigate the incident, according to a Wednesday afternoon statement.
Early Friday afternoon, Schaunaman told The Star emergency management officials were not concerned about air quality hazards from the fire, and that officials from the Environmental Protection Agency were monitoring the scene.
But at 10:45 a.m. that morning, residents in northern Johnson County received emails and texts from the Johnson County Health Department about a public alert, which said the blaze was potentially impacting air quality in the area and people detecting smoke should “stay indoors.”
The alert was issued after residents in the county reached out to the department about the smoke and an air quality specialist confirmed the plumes were blowing in the municipality’s direction. There was no evidence of harmful material in the smoke at the time of the alert, but department heads believed it was a standard “precautionary measure.”
Commissioner Christian Ramirez, whose district includes the Armourdale neighborhood, said he also received complaints from residents. A few complained about the lack of communication from the Unified Government.
“I do have some concerns in how we communicated to the community regarding the public health hazard,” he said over text on Tuesday.
The community needed a “better and more immediate notification system,” he said.
The Unified Government acknowledged they do not have a text-to-citizen service for the public, and in a Tuesday afternoon statement went on to say:
“We did, however, use emergency notifications on NextDoor and social media as well, providing updates on our website... There is a network of organizations/agencies/stakeholders that are automatically notified by the Emergency Management Department through their web emergency operations. For residents who are unable to get online, we recommend reaching out to 311 or 913-573-5311.”
The first notice of a fire was issued over social media in a few tweets by the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department calling the fire “80% extinguished” around 6:41 a.m.
KCKFD Fire crews are battling a fire at Advantage Metals. pic.twitter.com/chjAfk6x0j
— KCK Fire Department (@KCKFDPIO) May 19, 2023
The municipality’s warning at 2:05 p.m., more than eight hours after the blaze broke out, was the first to acknowledge any potential air quality issues through a Facebook post by the Unified Government Public Health Department.
When The Star told Medina how the Unified Government provided emergency updates and alerts, she said: “Facebook’s not going to cut it. And neither is 311. The burden is on them to alert us... Just like Johnson County was.”
Environmental Public Health Division Director Mary Beverly of the Johnson County Public Health Department said their decision to alert the public came once a specialist determined the wind was pulling smoke from the recycling plant fire toward their county.
Multiple people had called to complain about the smell of smoke, Beverly said, and since the fire had yet to be contained in Wyandotte County, it made sense “just to let residents know.”
“There was also a weather pattern that was happening to keep that smoke hanging low so it was affecting residents in a way where they needed to stay indoors if they smelled smoke,” she said during a Tuesday Zoom call.
“It’s just kind of a standard.”
The text-to-citizen service, Notify JoCo, sent out alerts to people living in the Interstate 435 loop, although no official report concerning air quality had been released by the EPA personnel at the scene of the fire.
Beverly said the alert did not necessarily mean the amount of materials being released into the air from the fire was high enough to cause a health issue.
“It was really more of a precautionary measure because there may be people who have some lung conditions such as asthma or any sort of constriction on their lungs... if they were to walk out and smell the smoke they could have an exacerbation of their symptoms.”
The weather pattern also held the plumes of smoke lower to the ground in Johnson County, which Beverly said may have posed a greater health risk to their residents than residents in Wyandotte County.
Deputy Director of Emergency Management Dan Robeson said the smoke appeared to be affecting Johnson County residents more directly, as it started in the southern part of Wyandotte County.
Emergency Management Services for Wyandotte County did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Johnson County identified the need for a mass notification system to alert residents of public hazards in 2013. Since then, 62,629 residents have signed up to receive emails, texts and phone calls about emergencies in their area. The service was made possible through a cost share collaboration and a partnership with the county, WaterOne, a Kansas water utility company as well as 16 different cities.
“It has been helpful in a variety of different situations,” Robeson said, ranging from severe weather alerts to spreading the word about missing children.
“It was designed so that we could have a strong capability to connect with people in emergencies.”
The Unified Government has not responded to questions about why a similar service has not been created for Wyandotte and whether there is any interest in starting one.
‘Disasters waiting to happen’
After the fire broke out, Wyandotte County residents expressed confusion over the lack of timely information and the dark cloud of smoke hovering around Armourdale.
Lisa Amayo, whose family has lived in the Turner neighborhood for over 50 years, is still concerned for the health of her 28-year-old son, who was on his way to the Advantage Metals recycling plant to drop off scrap metal for his junk removal company, Junk Gotta Go-Go, during the fire. Amayo called him once she saw the smoke from across the highway.
“You’re not supposed to be in that area. You’re not supposed to be breathing that, don’t you hear the sirens?”
But there were no “tornado-type” sirens or major alerts like Amayo had been expecting, and her 28-year-old was not able to check social media.
“He said it was all black smoke and he didn’t know what was going on… He said ‘Mom it’s ok, don’t worry’... But no, there should have been some type of warning for him and the people in the area.”
She said he had his windows down for some time while being caught in traffic, trying to leave the area.
The EPA has yet to release their official findings, but preliminary results suggest “there are no significant detections” of harmful materials released following Friday’s fire.
Preliminary data indicates that there are no significant detections of volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, or particulate above EPA’s action levels. The preliminary data will now go through a validation process before the final, validated results are made public. pic.twitter.com/CufP0uP0nk
— U.S. EPA Region 7 (@EPAregion7) May 20, 2023
But a local environmental justice organization, CleanAirNow, said their 20 monitors installed across the Kansas City metro painted a different picture.
“On the day of [the fire] it was definitely a cause for concern,” said Rayan Makarem, a climate policy advocate for the organization.
A monitor in the Armourdale neighborhood had a reading of 174 about five hours after the blaze was reported at the facility. The monitors use an index that measures air quality on a scale of 0 to over 300. A reading of 174 is considered unhealthy.
Throughout the day, Clean Air Now’s monitors jumped between 160 and 190, with one reaching 200 at a certain point, according to Makaram.
On Tuesday, Makaram said the monitors read in the 90s due to normal city pollution and pollutants from fires spreading in the north near Canada.
“Maybe we didn’t smell it but there’s something always happening in our air that we should try to be aware of,” he said.
Makaram was not surprised that Johnson County alerted residents, while Wyandotte residents four blocks away did not receive a warning.
He believes the disparity in resources between the two counties is part of the reason for the lack of an immediate notification system. He also said a public health hazard in Armourdale, which holds one of the first Hispanic communities in Kansas City, Kansas, is not necessarily new.
“This is a big industrial area, you’ve got the rail yard, you’ve got the factories. Its already a highly affected area... It didn’t happen somewhere else because the other neighborhoods don’t have piles of scrap metal laying around waiting to ignite.”
In other neighborhoods, Makaram said, more people may have been paying attention and willing to send out an alert.
“If you go through the Armourdale neighborhood, unfortunately, there’s more environmental disaster or just disasters waiting to happen.”
Fighting the fire
Schaunaman said he first saw the fire from about seven miles away Friday, while driving near Interstate 70 and 18th Street.
At the recycling center, firefighters encountered a pile of burning materials standing about 70 feet high, 150 feet long, and over 50 feet wide. Among the burning wreckage they saw automobiles, refrigerators and propane tanks, some still containing fuel that fed the fire.
A crane operator working at the yard attempted to put out the fire, but failed. The fire’s heat was even too intense for firefighters to stay in close proximity, forcing them to either attack the fire from a distance or use a ladder to spray water from above.
“Our immediate concern was there was an overhead power line and the heat of the fire was kind of impinging on that,” Schaunaman said.
A Johnson County foam trailer was called to the scene to assist, which does not occur often, he said.
Firefighters also had problems putting out the blaze because they lacked adequate water sources near the recycling center, Schaunaman said. When firefighters arrived, they had access to only one hydrant. Hours later, about 1 p.m., crews were able to secure a second hydrant almost a mile away.
“Ideally we like water supplies closer,” Schaunaman said. “It’s difficult to put the gallons per minute of water that you need on the fire when you’re only operating with one fire hydrant.”
The department also has a three hydrant rule, which says three fire hydrants are required when putting out a fire, as long as they are available.
David Mehlhaff, a spokesman for the Board of Public Utilities, which owns the hydrants and places them in accordance with the Unified Govenment, said all hydrants have to be placed in the right-of-way and off of private property.
The property, originally built in 1961, had different codes at the time, which may be a reason for the lack of surrounding hydrants, according to Mehlhaff. The closest hydrant, 1,000 feet away from the fire and about 600 feet off the property, also did not have a fire line attached to the property.
“I’m surprised the fire department didn’t require it,” Mehlhaff said, explaining that the lack of a fire line may be a public safety concern.
He said installing the line would be the responsibility of the owner and the Unified Government.
The owner, Advantage Metals, said they “are working with the local fire department to begin the process to improve access to water on the site in this interim period before new lines are installed next year,” according to a Wednesday afternoon statement by the recycling plant.
And in the fire’s aftermath, Commissioner Christian Ramirez said he believes a conversation regarding a more immediate, mass notification system is a conversation the commission and the administration need to have “ so that we can make that investment in the future.”