Milwaukee recycling plant facing 'significant downtime' after fire

NOW: Milwaukee recycling plant facing ’significant downtime’ after fire

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee recycling plant will be out of commission for a while after a massive fire Wednesday. 

This facility processes recyclables for the City of Milwaukee and 26 communities in Waukesha County -- or at least it did. 

Thursday afternoon, Milwaukee Sanitation Services got into the building for the first time, and its manager, Rick Meyers, told reporters the damage was extensive. 

Meyers said inspectors still had to finish ensuring the building was still structurally sound. From there, Republic Services, the private company that operates the plan, would do an inventory of what equipment was lost.

"We don't yet know the full extent of the damage, but it is a little more severe than we anticipated or hoped," Meyers said. "So we're probably looking at significant downtime for the facility."

For now, the message to people in the city and in Waukesha County is to set out your recycling on your normal days.

Meyers said pickups will continue uninterrupted. The challenge will be figuring out logistics on the back end. 

Typically, Meyers said the backup plan would be a WM facility in Germantown, but that plant is currently down for construction. So, both Milwaukee and Waukesha County officials said they're working with plants around Madison and Chicago to bring recyclables there. 

The fire, which began before 2 p.m. Wednesday, grew rapidly. Crews were on the scene for nearly a full 24 hours before they felt certain there weren't any more hotspots Thursday afternoon.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said while firefighters have responded to the recycling plant in the past, this was the worst fire he'd seen at the facility.

While he said it was too soon to tell what caused the fire, Lipski said recycling plant fires have become more common around the U.S., and improperly discarded electronics are often to blame.

"I can tell you that lithium-ion batteries are absolutely problematic right now," Lipski said. "The situation has not been regulated to the degree they are safe."

Lipski said because of the fire risk lithium-ion batteries pose, electronics should never be placed with ordinary recyclables. Fires often start with the batteries are crushed by equipment or when they get hot while buried in a pile of flammable plastics and rubbers.

"I believe the public's already been told not to put [electronics] in the recycling bin," Lipski said. "But I have a job because basic rules don't get followed."

Meyers said the City of Milwaukee could encounter overtime costs as workers haul recyclables to Madison and Chicago for the foreseeable future. 

Waukesha County Land Use Director Dale Shaver said the 26 communities relying on the Menomonee Valley plant have private contractors do that hauling. 

"We're in contact with the haulers, literally as of today, letting them know what our destinations now are," Shaver said.

Shaver added most of the communities have language in their contracts saying if the recycling plant is down, those haulers might have to take recyclables to a different location and cannot pass that cost along to taxpayers. 

Altogether, about 280,000 households are affected by this. Of those, 180,000 are in Milwaukee, the rest in Waukesha County.

Regarding pollution concerns given the heavy plumes of black smoke Wednesday, Craig Czarnecki, a public information specialist with the Wisconsin DNR's Air Program, said the DNR did testing at the site Wednesday.

Czarnecki said in an email the tests found some elevated levels of particulate matter, but nothing that would trigger an air quality warning. 

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