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Recycling plant fire highlights decades

May 02, 2023May 02, 2023

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Many Kansas Citians began their morning routines on Friday, May 19, greeted by an unusual sight; large clouds of black smoke billowing into the morning sky over Wyandotte County.

The smoke was from a fire at the Advantage Metal Recycling Facility in the Armourdale neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas.

As firefighters worked to bring the fire that stretched to 300 feet long, 100 feet wide and sent flames 70 feet into the air under control, there was another concern.

KCKFD Fire crews are battling a fire at Advantage Metals.

Residents surrounding the neighborhood reported a smell that was what you might get if you threw water on rusted-out metal.

That smell drew the attention of those who monitor air quality. KSHB 41 meteorologist Wes Peery quickly drew up a map that showed elevated levels of particulate matter in the air around the fire.

A CODE ORANGE air quality alert has been issued for Kansas City because of the smoke/particulate matter from the KCK recycling plant fire.This wildfire smoke may also be contributing some too. #mowx #kcwx #kswx

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitored the air quality of the area during the fire, and said it did not detect elevated air quality issues that would be of concern to people in the area, per a Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department press release.

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.

According to the same release, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) confirmed that any runoff water from extinguishing the fire "did not pose a hazard to local streams/rivers and that allowing the runoff from the property to enter the Kansas River would not be any type of violation to their standards."

The cause of the fire has not been determined, and according to the Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department, there may not ever be a definitive answer.

Within hours of the fire, health officials in neighboring Johnson County sent geo-targeted text messages and voicemails to its residents, advising them to stay indoors if they had any concerns about air quality.

The environmental impact of such industrial activity in Kansas City, Kansas, is more familiar to residents of neighborhoods like Armourdale, which is home to several industrial facilities.

Dozens of community members, Kansas City-area residents, government officials and local politicians piled onto a bus on April 13, 2023, for a tour of KCK's neighborhoods. The tour was organized by CleanAirNow (CAN), which chose sites along the route it considers to be "toxic sites."

"I know you heard about Ohio, right? We have an Ohio here," Carlos Gallardo, a community member of Kansas City, Kansas, referred to the environmental disaster of the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, while near rail yards on the tour. "It's not about if it will happen, we know it will happen at some point."

CAN, a local climate and environmental justice organization, hoped the tour would help showcase some of the most pressing environmental injustices in the bi-state Kansas City community. The group is part of a larger effort called Justice40rward that came out of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, Inflation Reduction Act and other federal legislation.

The goal is to increase transparency and collaboration among agencies to address environmental injustice.

"You may know Kansas for tornadoes, the red slippers, but I know Kansas for a very different way," Aurora Pantojo Conejo, who grew up in KCK's Quindaro neighborhood, said as she helped guide the tour.

As the April tour continued, guests visited Argentine, another one of KCK's neighborhoods. The neighborhood, named after a silver smelter that operated there and emitted toxins into the water and soil for almost a century and has since been designated a Superfund site, has been subjected to environmental injustice since its incorporation.

Just under four miles northeast and over the Kansas River from Argentine lies Armourdale, a community surrounded by rail yards, metal-crushing scrap yards and manufacturing plants. Armourdale's history of industrialization can be observed in modern times. The Armourdale Refinery, which operated as a coal-fired power plant from 1910 to 1950 and now a natural gas power plant, is a site where groundwater and soil have been contaminated with cancer-causing gas vinyl chloride and other industrial pollutants, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In terms of length of life and quality of life, Wyandotte County ranks 103rd out of 104 counties in Kansas, according to the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute's County Health Rankings & Roadmaps (CHR&R) program. Johnson County, which borders Wyandotte County to its south, is ranked first.

Health inequities are even more apparent within the county itself. According to a study conducted by We Are Wyandotte, residents in the eastern side of Wyandotte County live as much as 20 years less on average than residents in the western side of the county.

Wyandotte County is a melting pot of its own, touting the title of "one of the most diverse communities in the country," according to Visit KC. It has no ethnic majority, according to the county.

According to Visit KC, more than 70 languages are spoken in Wyandotte's public schools. Schools aren't the only entities in the county dealing with such a diverse range of spoken languages, as local health care facilities see how language barriers can become health care barriers for residents of Wyandotte.

Both located in Wyandotte County, the University of Kansas Health System (UKHS) and Vibrant Health, which provides health care to Wyandotte community members "regardless of socio-economic obstacles", offer dozens and dozens of language interpreters because of the diversity of the area.

Dr. Steven Stites, chief medical officer of UKHS, and Dr. Sandra Stites, the chief medical officer of Vibrant Health, are a married couple who are passionate about under-served needs in Wyandotte County.

Dr. Steven Stites says barriers to health insurance are the leading cause of health disparities in Wyandotte County.

"So when you see it in Wyandotte County, there's a great deal of health care injustice," Stites said. "The answer is not a hospital challenge or a clinic challenge; It's ultimately a social fabric challenge for us. And we have to answer the basic question, ‘Is healthcare right, or is it a privilege based on your economic status?’"

Dr. Sandra Stites said Wyandotte County has a "lifelong story of segregation" which has facilitated a lack of resources, transportation, educational opportunities, economic opportunities and, of course, a lack of access to health care. She said environmental justice plays a part.

The CAN "toxic sites" tour made five stops, but signs of environmental injustice were ubiquitous while meandering through the disadvantaged neighborhoods of KCK.

Crammed along the Kansas River's edge and neighbored by a rail yard to the south lie multiple metal scrap and salvage yards on South 26th Street in Argentine. In the distance, three smoke stacks at the now-mothballed Kaw Power Station stand tall above it all, reminding the community of the pollutants that have contaminated it.

Dust blew up as the bus trailed down South 26th Street; scrap and metal yards lined the street on both sides. Tour attendees gawked as smoke billowed into the air.

"Look at that, Josh! Josh, to your right, look at that right there," Beto Lugo-Martinez, the co-executive director of CAN, said as he pointed to the smoke and singled out an EPA official on the tour.

"I see it," Joshua Tapp, office director of intergovernmental affairs at Region 7 of the U.S. EPA, said.

"That is bad," Lugo-Martinez said. "That is what I am talking about. They don't do it everyday, they don't do it when you all show up, they don't do it when EPA shows up."

Lugo-Martinez continued by highlighting the fact that none of the workers were wearing masks as they apparently burned scrap.

"I got it," Tapp said to let Lugo-Martinez know he heard him.

Tapp said the EPA learns something new every time they work with CAN. At the end of the tour, he said he was going to investigate some "specific things" he observed.

"I’d have to check and see what the local regulations say about that, but in general, any time we see emissions (moving) across a fence line, that's alarming," Tapp said on the day of the tour about the burning that took place at scrap facilities.

In addition to burning, CAN said metal is also crushed at these facilities. Crushing cars and other metals can emit lead into the air, which also contaminates nearby water and soil, according to CAN. Lead exposure can affect the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, reproductive and developmental systems and the cardiovascular system depending on the level of exposure, according to the EPA.

KSHB 41 followed up with EPA Region 7 weeks after the tour and received the following response:

"During the community tour provided by CleanAirNow on April 13, 2023, CleanAirNow highlighted many complex local issues and neighborhoods that deserve more regulatory attention," an EPA spokesperson said in an email.

Based on what Tapp witnessed on the tour, EPA Region 7 has initiated multiple efforts to address the concerning circumstances.

"EPA Region 7 and our state and local partners are conducting an in-depth compliance review of scrap metal and recycling facilities, starting with multiple neighborhoods in Wyandotte County," the email said. "The review is also focused on the permits held by these facilities."

The tour bus pulled up to a daycare facility in Armourdale for its second stop; the children were outside playing, talking and laughing with one another.

The daycare owner, Ivonne Gutierrez, stood before tour attendees on the sidewalk as she explained her worries through a Spanish interpreter.

She is concerned for the children she cares for, the church across the street and the community as a whole. Air quality and stormwater drainage was the focus of the conversation.

"There were a number of things we saw at the daycare that were concerning," the EPA's Tapp said. "We saw the potential for diesel idling in the area, we saw that there was a number of commercial and industrial activities in the area, and then we saw the stormwater issues. There was a daycare there, for sure, but there are other folks that live in that area as well, so it's very concerning."

Since the tour, the EPA has found dust that deposits on the daycare's playground equipment under certain weather conditions. The EPA is continuing to develop a sampling protocol that will help better understand the compositions of the dust, according to an EPA spokesperson.

Additionally, because of the location of these communities along prominent highways, traffic routes and rail yards, they are exposed to an unusual amount of diesel emissions, car exhaust and other emissions, according to CAN.

CAN conducted its own study and found that in a two hour span, 415 trucks passed through one intersection of Armourdale on April 12, 2021. That equates to 3.46 trucks per minute. High levels of air pollutants related to transportation have been observed in Armourdale for years, according to CAN.

Attendees on the tour who are community members of various neighborhoods in eastern Wyandotte County noted many of their family members and neighbors have allergies and/or asthma.

Aurora Pantojo Conejo grew up in Quindaro, Kansas. She came to the United States not knowing what her future would hold as an undocumented 3-year-old. Pantojo Conejo is motivated to make a change because of her younger sister, who she says is allergic to "everything."

"This community means so much to me, and to see this, honestly breaks my heart and it makes me very emotional to feel powerless, to know that their lives and their health could be at risk, and their childrens’ lives could be at risk because they were born on the wrong side of the river, on the wrong side of the city," Pantojo Conejo said.

The same rings true for other residents of Kansas City, Kansas.

"I live right here, there is the highway right there," Hazel Davis, who lives in KCK, said on the tour bus. "I have two kids, and both of them have allergies. My son had them really, really bad. I mean, real bad."

"I mean, people perish from the lack of knowledge," Davis continued. "When you don't know what's going on in life, and you just live day to day, trying to take care of your family, your kids, you really don't realize the impact of your environment."

The final stop of the tour was John Garland Park in northeast KCK, which CleanAirNow considers a "toxic site."

"It was never a toxic site," said David Doyle, who is with EPA Region 7 and helped facilitate the park's opening.

Doyle said he utilizes the park himself.

According to Doyle, the EPA considers John Garland Park a brownfield site, not a toxic site. A brownfield site is an area that is either slightly contaminated or assumed to be contaminated.

Previously, the area was used as a landfill from 1972 to 1974. After the landfill's closure, a park was established on the south end of where the facility was once established, according to Wyandotte County.

According to Doyle, the decomposition of landfill objects leads to the natural creation of methane gas.

Due to community concerns about health hazards of the park, the Unified Government (UG) of Wyandotte County closed the park in 1990. Since then, with the help of the KDHE and EPA, the UG worked to safely reopen the park. To present day, the EPA has conducted soil and air monitoring, and Doyle said there is no methane gas concern.

He said KDHE ordered continuous methane gas extraction from the park to ensure the safety of the surrounding community. Doyle said the most pressing concern has always been the possibility of methane gas traveling to nearby homes and settling in basements, which he said the Kansas City Fire Department monitored. He also said the UG bought lots/homes next door to the site to prevent residents from moving into contaminated homes.

On the day of the Metal Advantage Recycling fire in Armourdale, residents who have opted-in to a government-based text/email-notification service in neighboring county, Johnson County, were warned to stay indoors due to potential poor air quality.

A Kansas City, Kansas, Fire Department spokesperson provided updates to media who were on the scene, but it wasn't until a 2:05 p.m. social media post from the NextDoor app from the Unified Government's Health Department.

A direct public safety notification system does not exist for Wyandotte County, according to a spokesperson for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County.

On May 19, the county informed residents through emergency notifications on NextDoor and social media, and provided updates on the county's website. For Wyandotte residents that can not able to get online, the county advises they reach out to 3-1-1 (913-573-5311), who can provide the same information.