BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The City of Bloomington issued an alert to residents after a contained burn exercise conducted by the Bloomington Fire Department resulted in potentially contaminated ash debris.
Initial test results indicate the presence of lead in the samples collected, city officials confirmed in an update Monday night.
According to BFD, it completed a controlled live burn training series in the 1200 block of South High Street at a two-story house already slated and approved to be demolished.
As the live fire training exercise was wrapping up Friday morning, BFD Chief Jason Moore said the department was alerted that a concerned citizen tested a piece of debris that came from the house fire and identified the presence of lead.
Neighbors identified that person as Matt Murphy, who has lived in the neighborhood closest to the controlled burn site for more than 10 years.
“We were all watching the fire and you could smell the paint burning,” said Murphy. “It’s unfortunate as a contractor and old house painter, I recognized the smell of lead paint.”
Murphy said he ran to the store and got an instant lead test kit, which confirmed his suspicions. He wasn’t the only one who did that, either.
“We kind of went into full damage control. So, my wife collected this bag of paint chips,” said Christopher Sapp, who also lives nearby. “Every piece that I tested was positive for lead.”
“I just saw the plumage and I could smell it so I immediately went inside because I didn’t want to be around this,” said Ingrid Faber who lives in one of the closest homes to the site of the contained burn.
Residents said they’ve been finding debris scattered everywhere since the fire on Friday.
“With the wind it’s just blowing everywhere. It’s all over our roof, all over our yard, it’s everywhere — on our solar panels. It is in every nook and cranny can’t really get rid of it,” said Faber.
“When you pick it up, it turns into powder immediately and you can see on the driveway where it’s already pulverized,” Sapp.
Moore said BFD immediately notified the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the Monroe County Emergency Management when the department was made aware that there may have been lead present in the debris.
Although residents tell FOX59 they are frustrated with the decision to conduct a controlled burn so close to a residential area and wonder why it was not checked for presence of lead prior to the demolition, the city said all necessary steps were taken to get approval for the controlled burn.
According to the fire department, the house went through the entire approval process as set forth by IDEM, at the cost of the property owner, to meet the requirements to burn the house and on September 17, the approval was issued. You can view that letter, here.
“From what I can tell, the Bloomington Fire Department did everything by the book,” said Andrew Guenther, who serves as the Chair of the Bloomington Environmental Commission.
“This is more a case of re-writing the book so it can be an even better version of itself. I think in the future toxic and dangerous substances should not be burned within city limits for any reason except for in appropriate facilities designed to do so,” added Guenther.
Guenther said when he was alerted to the problem, he immediately reached out to IDEM to ensure the proper protocols had been followed and that nothing went awry during the training exercise.
“I just want to say that I applaud the efforts of all citizens to alert us to this problem,” he said.
Conditions for burning are established by IDEM and include requirements such as all asbestos-containing materials, asphalt roofing and vinyl siding be removed before the intentional burning of any structure. It also requires mercury switches and fluorescent bulbs be removed from the building, among other things.
One thing it doesn’t require, however, is that a presence of lead be checked for and that’s because in Indiana, according to Open Burning Rule 326 IAC 4-1, the burning of lead-based paint is not prohibited. IDEM said, however, it does recommend any fire training follow lead-safe work practices.
“I think IDEM could be a great leader in this by taking initiative to actually change their own policy,” said Guenther. “But in the meantime it’s up to communities such as Bloomington guard their own safety against this type of threat.”
In the near future, Guenther said he plans to introduce a resolution to the Environmental Commission to urge the City Council to prohibit open burning of any toxic or dangerous substances.
“When it comes to lead, which the World Health Organization (WHO), the Mayo Clinic, various other authorities have said, there’s no safe level of lead in someone’s blood. So, when you actually have that lead being ingested, particularly by children, by those still developing, it can lead to lifelong health impacts, it can lead to lifelong IQ declines, and those sorts of things are not acceptable.”
“I’m hoping for actually for not just city but also state legislation to change how we handle these you know, so-called controlled burns,” said Murphy. “There is no acceptable exposure level and this is kind of an unusual event that has dispersed this material over a very large area.”
Murphy feels it is a poor choice to burn down a structure in a residential area, even if it is confirmed there is no presence of lead in the paint.
“Every fire produces toxins,” he said.
Residents said they had spent the weekend collecting and bagging samples of the debris and paint chips that accumulated on their property. Murphy has spent the last several days collecting those bags and also getting some dropped off by residents. They’re labeled with the date, time and address they were collected and Murphy said he plans to bring them to IUPUI Tuesday for independent testing.
In addition to the collection done by residents, BFD crews and Chief Moore have been surveying the area as well, collecting debris and going door-to-door to survey residents and document the spread of the debris.
“I was really impressed that he seemed to be as concerned as — generally as concerned as we were,” said Sapp. “We support our fire department; we appreciate the way that they keep us safe and we’ve been — at least I’ve been pleased by their immediate reaction to this.”
Officials said Mayor John Hamilton has coordinated with IDEM’s commissioner to prioritize testing of the debris collected on Friday to determine toxicity level.
“Initial test results indicate the presence of lead in the samples collected,” the City of Bloomington shared in an update Monday night. “Residents may dispose of bagged debris and used cleaning materials in specially marked receptacles that were placed in the area Sunday.”
Sapp said they are just hoping for a resolution. “This is not about placing blame. This it’s about making sure that the city and the fire department and the Department of Environmental Management, whoever is responsible that they clean it up so that we can enjoy our yards.”
While Sapp is concerned for the health of his family, including his 10-year-old daughter who enjoys the outdoors and doing things like gardening in their yard, he said he is also concerned for his neighbors with younger children and the possibility of what could happen if they ingest lead, if that turns out to be what a lab confirms the debris was contaminated with.
Faber agreed that not only is she concerned for the health of her neighbors, but also herself.
“I’m a two-time cancer survivor and I have auto immune diseases. I’ve been trying to be super safe during Covid,” she said. “I was really concerned.”
Once testing results are available, the city said further communication will be released regarding disposal of the debris. The city also said it is continuing to work with IDEM to implement recommendations for remediation.
City officials said residents in the area may request their property be evaluated for remediation by completing a form on the City’s website at bloomington.in.gov/bfdburninfo.
On Monday night, the city also reported that after encountering delays in contracting with an environmental remediation company, the BFD is working to identify and contract with a different service provider to help conduct the evaluation and cleanup, at no charge to the affected residents.
Just two days prior, the BFD announced it entered into a contract with Servpro, a company specializing in biohazard cleanup. FOX59 crews saw one car with the company nearby on Monday afternoon. It is not clear what the status of their contract is now with the city.