Detroit fire smokes out hazardous litterer

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The story of a massive and mysterious 2013 warehouse fire on Detroit's west side resulted in a rare felony conviction of the building's owner: littering.

As crews fought this 2013 warehouse blaze, materials inside, such as needles and scalpels, wound up on sidewalks and the street. The items posed risks to the public, and became a felony littering case.

Raoul Mangrum, 47, pleaded guilty to one count of infectious waste littering — a plea that will mean 60 days in jail, 120 hours of community service and a $3,000 fine. It's a case where state environmental investigators, often handcuffed by an inability to mete out fines or penalities harsh enough to deter dangerous behavior, were forced to get creative.

Mangrum was licensed by the state to pick up and transport medical waste to proper disposal facilities. But he previously was found to have stored it at unapproved sites, including abandoned buildings. None of those instances rose to a felony offense, according to state officials, and his Biochem Technical Services LLC remained in business.

Late in September 2013, residents and local workers said they became aware of piles of boxes inside an abandoned warehouse north of Interstate 94 near the Pittsburgh/Warren intersection. One person who worked nearby took pictures of the boxes, all bearing a red biohazard symbol.

On Sept. 26, 2013, emergency crews and hazardous material officials responded to a fire at the building that forced a shutdown of neighborhood streets. People who lived nearby were instructed to stay inside and close their doors and windows while smoke poured from the site for hours.

In the following months, several workers at one nearby business complained of serious health complications they believe came from inhaling the smoke. The state and city have no reports about how many people in the neighborhood may have been harmed by the fire.

Investigators soon came across Mangrum, who had purchased the building for $1,000, according to public records. The blaze was investigated as an arson, but no definitive finding was ever made.

A person who worked nearby went into the warehouse and snapped pictures of the boxes, all bearing a red biohazard symbol, before the blaze.

"Unlike normal household or even industrial (waste), this included human fluids, used medical equipment and material considered a biohazard, so it presented a completely different level of threat to public health," said Brad Wurfel, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Had the building burned to the ground, Mangrum likely would have only faced another small-penalty notification. As firefighters battled the blaze, however, the materials stored inside wound up out on the sidewalks and in the street. The items included needles, scalpels, blood vials and biohazard bags filled with unknown contents that posed a potential for injury, according to state officials.

"Up to that point, all we would have had was violations for improper storage ...," said Lt. Vencent Woods, environmental investigation section supervisor for the state DEQ. "But once it ended up on the street, we could charge (Mangrum) with littering. And it goes up to a felony because of the needles and sharps out there."

Mangrum, reached last Friday at Biochem Technical Services, declined to discuss the matter.

"I don't have any comment," he said. "Have a good day."

Sharps on the street may not have been the only potential for injury. Out of concern for public safety, the fire marshal ordered the remains of the warehouse demolished. In the weeks following the fire, several residents and workers in the area complained of health issues that they felt may have been related to the fire.

Several workers at nearby Bridging Communities Inc. complained of medical problems such as difficulty breathing, blisters and cellulitis. Vaughina Vega worked at the nonprofit in 2013, which sits a block from the warehouse site. She said she began having respiratory problems within days of the fire.

"I had never had breathing problems up to that point," said Vega. "After breathing in those toxins, I went to the doctor .... I was put on an inhaler and had to go through two different rounds of antibiotics to get rid of the infection."

She now uses two different inhalers daily, and her doctor has given her no reason to believe he breathing will improve.

"He explained to me that whatever happened is done and that there's no reversing it."

A part of the wall collapses in flames while firefighters try to contain it. Photos of a fire in Detroit in an abandoned building on the corner of Martin and Pittsburgh Roads on Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013.

Sheila Crowell lives a few blocks from the warehouse site and remembers her fears the day the building burned.

"People from everywhere around the neighborhood were heading up that way to look," she said. "I knew better than to go. You could tell from that black smoke that it wasn't good."

Crowell still has concerns about how medical waste was allowed to end up in an empty building in the middle of a neighborhood.

"What needs to be investigated is ... where does this medical waste go?" she said. "If (hospitals) are hiring somebody to take it, is that person going to an incinerator or are they taking it into some neighborhood?"

Michigan does not have an incinerator licensed to properly dispose of medical wastes. Facilities that produce the waste hire companies to transport the material for disposal, according to state officials. Once the material is picked up, however, there is little oversight for what happens next. As a result, cases like Mangrum's can occur.

"We're trusting that it isn't something that happens frequently," said Steve Sliver, chief of the DEQ's solid waste section. "The program relies in part on the generators of this waste material following through on making sure the material is properly destroyed."

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