MISHAWAKA — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking the blame for a chemical fire at an abandoned factory that forced evacuations in a northern Indiana city.
The EPA's incident report on Friday night's fire in Mishawaka about 10 miles east of South Bend states that contractors the federal agency hired to clean up the site left two different chemicals — cyanide and sodium hydrosulfite — too close together in the idled Baycote building.
Sodium hydrosulfite is a highly reactive chemical, the report says, and the combination is likely what caused the fire to ignite. That fire produced a large smoke cloud that prompted officials to evacuate homes within a one-mile radius of the shuttered factory that's in the midst of an EPA-supervised cleanup.
The fire's official cause remains under investigation, however.
Mishawaka Mayor Dave Wood told WSBT-TV that Friday night's fire at the former electroplating and metal finishing business "could have been much, much worse."
"The building was literally corroding from within. The roof was collapsing, beams were corroding, tanks were corroding," Wood said.
The business' former owners closed the plant in 2008, leaving behind tens of thousands of gallons of hazardous chemicals.
The EPA's on-scene coordinator, Paul Atkociunas, said some materials in the building were incorrectly marked and very difficult to identify when contractors started cleaning up more than 50,000 gallons of chemicals up at the site in May.
"There were hundreds of containers, in vats and material in pits and sledges. We have the characterization and understanding that there were acids and caustics involved, cyanides present, heavy metals," he added.
Atkociunas said mistakes like the one EPA contractors made by accidentally putting chemicals too close together are rare.
But local environmentalist Marc Nelson said the building remains dangerous.
"The building will not be safe until all the chemicals are removed," he said.
Atkociunas said the EPA plans to have the cleanup finished by November.