Fire and Frustration

Fire and Frustration

Smoke from a blaze at a North Knoxville recycling facility with a history of recent safety violations forced the evacuation of nearly 100 homes.

by scott barker • May 2, 2019
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A large fire at a North Knoxville recycling center sent a massive amount of toxic black smoke billowing into the sky on Wednesday.

Area residents have complained about the recycling facility for years.

No one was killed and the fire was contained within the facility grounds, but nearby residences in the Oakwood-Lincoln Park neighborhood were evacuated and officials say the recyclable waste on the property will smoulder for days.

Oakwood-Lincoln Park residents said the fire validates their complaints that the Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling facility is a menace to the neighborhood. City officials had not previously found codes violations at the facility in recent years, but last year the company was fined $21,000 for safety violations, records show.

Authorities fielded the first call about the blaze at 1:10 p.m., Knoxville Fire Department Capt. D.J. Corcoran said. The fire grew to cover about two acres of the 10-acre site alongside a railroad track at 2742 Hancock St. in the middle of Oakwood-Lincoln Park.

Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling processes cardboard, plastic and paper, Corcoran said. The burning plastic, he said, produced the thick black smoke that could be seen for miles and can be dangerous if inhaled. Authorities advised residents not to breathe the acrid smoke, and to stay indoors and turn off their air conditioning units.

“It’s a big trash fire is what it is,” Corcoran said.

As firefighters battled the blaze, explosions rattled through the neighborhood -- at least 13 went off in a matter of minutes beginning shortly after 2:30 p.m. Corcoran said the blasts most likely were exploding propane tanks that fueled the company’s heavy equipment.

All 25 employees were able to leave the facility without injury, Corcoran said. Many milled around just outside the firefighting perimeter, talking among themselves.

Petar Arcic, a truck driver who left his rig at the site, paced and muttered in disbelief. He’d arrived from Chicago, and was supposed to take a load of recyclable material to South Carolina. “I don’t know what I can tell my company,” he said.

Evacuations and Violations

Later in the afternoon, authorities ordered the evacuation of 65 homes along Morelia Avenue. One of the displaced, lifelong resident James Watson, stood talking with neighbors beside his packed car in the parking lot of Oakwood United Methodist Church.

“I was at work and had eight people who called to warn me the neighborhood’s on fire,” he said.

Watson grew angry talking about the Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling facility. He alleged rats that lived in the waste piles got into nearby houses, that tractor-trailers rattled through the narrow streets and noises violated the peace of the neighborhood.

“You shouldn’t have a garbage dump in a residential neighborhood,” he fumed. “It’s just not the place for it.”

City Councilman Mark Campen, who represents Oakwood-Lincoln Park, said constituents have complained about the recycling facility the nearly eight years he’s been in office. “It’s been an eyesore -- piles and piles of trash and tractor trailers and junk lying around,” he said.

Deborah Thomas, president of the Oakwood-Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, expressed frustration that nothing had been done about the facility. “This is why we don’t need an industrial zone in a residential neighborhood,” she said.

Google Earth photo of recycling facility

A Google satellite photo shows the yard of Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling in the heart of the Oakwood-Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Waste from the City of Knoxville’s curbside recycling program does not go to Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling. The last time the company was cited for a codes violation was in 2015, according to city spokeswoman Fiona McAnally.

Federal workplace safety records, however, show the company was fined $21,000 last year for violations that included hazardous energy controls, sanitation, equipment problems and general materials handling, among others.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Fort Loudon Waste and Recycling was cited for 29 safety violations on Jan. 11, 2018 and fined $15,300 for 13 of the citations. A month later, on Feb. 15, the company was cited another eight times and fined $5,700 for six of those violations.

Later in the evening, a thunderstorm followed by steady rain moved into the city. Wind had kept the toxic smoke aloft during the day, but the downpour tamped it down to the point that authorities ordered the evacuation of more nearby houses. The total evacuation area as of midnight encompassed approximately 13 blocks -- nearly 100 homes.

The Emerald Youth Foundation, the Salvation Army offered assistance and shelter to the evacuees. Some made arrangements to stay with family or friends.

Watson, the resident who had watched the smoke rising above his home from the Methodist Church parking lot, said he would head back to his workplace at a car dealership. “I guess I’ll go to Clinton and stay at the car lot,” he said.