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Kansas City-area residents urged to stay indoors because of smoke from recycling plant fire

A fire at Advantage Metals Recycling in Kansas City, Kansas, on May 19, 2023, sent smoke billowing miles away.
Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department
A fire at Advantage Metals Recycling in Kansas City, Kansas, on May 19, 2023, sent smoke billowing miles away.

A fire at a recycling plant on Friday morning sent smoke billowing miles away, impacting air quality across the metro. By Saturday, fire fighters managed to control the fire and air quality levels in the area are considered "acceptable."

Updated: May 20, 2023 at 9:08 AM CDT
The fire has been extinguished. This story has been updated.

Kansas City, Kansas, fire fighters have managed to control a blaze at Advantage Metals Recycling in Kansas City, Kansas, that sent smoke billowing miles away and impacted air quality in the surrounding areas.

According to the U.S. Air Quality Index, the air quality levels in the area are now considered “good” as of Saturday morning. Most of the smoke from the fire has been reduced to steam, health department officials say, but people are still encouraged to stay inside if they are near the plume or smell any smoke.

The Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department announced that the fire was officially extinguished at 7:18 p.m. on Friday.

Assistant fire chief Scott Schaunaman said that crews would stay into the night after the fire was out to ensure it didn't reignite.

Johnson County Department of Health and Environment's emergency alert system sent out a notification Friday morning urging residents to stay inside if they detect any fumes, and shut their windows.

By the next morning, the United Government Public Health Department in Wyandotte County advised residents that while air quality levels are now "acceptable" for most people, "if you are unusually sensitive to particle pollution, consider reducing your activity level or shorten the amount of time you are active outdoors."

A difficult fire to fight

The fire, which began early Friday morning, spread to 500,000 cubic feet of recycling material at Advantage's location on S. 11th Street. The Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department was dispatched around 5:30 a.m. to combat the blaze.

A health department spokesperson said they were informed about it from an employee around 9 a.m. as the smoke began moving into Johnson County.

Advantage Metals recycles vehicles and industrial scraps, in addition to household materials. Because of the combustible materials involved, smoke from the fire can adversely affect air quality for miles. On Twitter, users said they could smell the smoke in Overland Park and further south, and at the north end of Johnson County.

Those with respiratory problems or heart issues are at a higher risk of breathing issues from smoke inhalation. The health department did not report anyone needing treatment or being adversely affected.

Schaunaman said the large amount of combustible materials and metal in the facility made the fire difficult to contain.

Even as the department made progress on Friday, Shaunaman said that smaller, spot fires continued to reignite.

“Advantage Metals is assisting, they've got big cranes in there moving some of the debris out of the way so we can get to some of these spot fires,” Shaunaman said.

The closest water supply was a fire hydrant 1,000 feet away. The department eventually located another 3,500 feet away and is utilizing a foam trailer from another fire department.

The KCKFD says one firefighter was take to a local emergency department to have their eyes check after they accidentally came in contact with the foam.

When crews began fighting the fire, they were concerned a high voltage power line adjacent to the fire would fall down. After power to the line was shut off, Shaunaman says crews were able to continue working.

“If you’ve ever been around a car fire, it's kind of startling at first,” Shaunaman said. “As the tires heat up, they explode. It kind of sounds like loud gunshots, so you're hearing that throughout the fire.”

Environmental concerns

The KCKFD was dispatched early on May 19, 2023, to fight a metal fire at a recycling plant in Kansas City, Kansas.
Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department
The KCKFD was dispatched in the early morning on May 19, 2023, but their closest water supply was a fire hydrant 1,000 feet away.

Rollin Sachs, the air quality environmental health specialist for the Johnson County Health Department, was on the scene working with emergency crews.

The Environmental Protection Agency was also at the scene to further investigate air quality. Shaunaman reiterated the health department's advice to stay indoors if you can smell the smoke.

“If someone was exposed to (the fire) that maybe could exasperate their asthma or if they have any type of respiratory condition,” Shaunaman said. “But as far as long-term effects for something like this, and just short exposure, it's very unlikely someone's going to have long-term health effects.”

On Friday, the national Air Quality Index, maintained in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had upgraded much of the Kansas City area, including all of northern Johnson County, to level orange. That means the air quality is unhealthy for sensitive groups, including the elderly, children and those with heart and lung diseases.

Beto Lugo Martinez, co-executive director of environmental justice organization Clean Air Now, based in Kansas City, Kansas, is concerned about how little the local government is prepared for situations like this.

The health department for the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kansas, and Wyandotte County, where the fire occurred, did not put out a warning until after the Johnson County Health Department did.

“The notifications help when something happens,” Lugo Martinez said. “But what is our regulators, our local Unified Government or agencies, public health departments doing to ensure that these facilities are operating under the statutes of the law? That we are not just allowing them to continue to pollute."

"I'm not saying shut it down," he continued. "What I'm saying is there is a mechanism to hold them accountable. We need to ensure that all of these facilities, not just Advantage, but all of them face a robust inspection.”

Lugo Martinez said it was his team, not local governmental agencies, that notified the EPA of the fire.

Clean Air Now has its own air monitoring network in the area, and all of its sensors say the quality is currently unhealthy or hazardous. In the organization's own analysis in the area around the fire, fine particulate matter concentrations jumped nearly four times as high.

He sees the lack of preparedness, and the overabundance of industrial plants in Kansas City, Kansas, as an example of environmental racism that puts its residents in Wyandotte County— who are typically more diverse and working-class — at risk of disasters like the fire.

“Johnson County is more prepared — it is a more affluent community as well,” Lugo Martinez said. “It continues to show the inequitable distribution of resources that are available to communities of color, communities on the fence lines of dangerous chemical facilities … A more affluent community would not have a chemical facility in their neighborhood."

An air quality representative with the Kansas City, Missouri, Health Department was unavailable for comment. No air quality warnings related to the fire were issued on the Missouri side of the metro.

This story includes reporting from the Shawnee Mission Post.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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