ASHLEY, Ind.—Two years ago on a Friday evening in May, Kory Kistler was getting ready to leave work at a recycling plant marketed by its owners as being on the front line in a global war against plastic waste.

Then all hell broke loose. Flammable, 700-degree vapors began spewing from a valve on a pump at the plant.

“All of a sudden my operators on the ground started screaming over the radio,” recalled Kistler, a former Marine and a resident of Fort Wayne, 35 miles to the south. “It was hard to understand anything they were saying. So I was like, ‘I’ll go down, check it out and see what’s going on.’ And as soon as I walk outside, I see clouds of vapor in the sky.”

Then, he recalls, the vapors ignited, setting off an uncontrolled fire that was also fed by a type of oil made from plastic waste in a heated, pressurized chamber. As a black cloud of smoke billowed into the sky, local firefighters raced to the plant, set among farm fields and grain silos in Steuben County along Interstate Highway 69 in northeast Indiana, just west of Ashley, population 1,000.

The plant’s owner is San Francisco-based Brightmark, a company that also works with dairy farmers to capture methane from manure. The plan here, though, is to store, shred and chop plastic waste and extrude it into pellets inside a cavernous building. Those pellets are then fed into pressurized “pyrolysis” chambers—the plant has six of them—that use extreme heat to produce a synthetic gas and a dirty “pyrolysis oil,” in what the chemical industry markets as a type of “advanced recycling.”

Plastic waste at the Brightmark plant in northeast Indiana awaits chemical processing. Credit: James Bruggers
Plastic waste at the Brightmark plant in northeast Indiana awaits chemical processing. Credit: James Bruggers
Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in his hand the company's new chemical recycling plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. The pellets are made from plastic waste and sent into chemical processing equipment to make diesel fuel, naphtha, and wax. Credit: James Bruggers
Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in the company’s new chemical recycling plant in Indiana at the end of July. The pellets are made from plastic waste and sent into chemical processing equipment to make diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. Credit: James Bruggers

The plastics industry champions the process as something that makes plastics sustainable, even green, by turning old plastic containers, packaging and the like into new plastic products without the need to extract more fossil fuels to create new plastic feedstocks. But many scientists and environmentalists say pyrolysis is anything but sustainable, describing it as energy-intensive manufacturing with a large carbon footprint that incinerates much of the plastic waste and mostly just makes new fossil fuels. 

“I got down onto the unit and walked over to it,” Kistler recalled, as he described the night of the fire. “There’s just basically a jet fire coming out, so I run as fast as I can screaming for my operator up in the control room to shut the pump off, open everything to the (emergency) flare so we can release dangerous vapor safely and prevent the build-up of pressure.”

But for a while, Kistler said, the pressure kept building and “we started losing all control of the unit along with our safety protocols.”

Eventually, firefighters helped extinguish the flames, and plant operators wrested back control of the plant, according to accounts by Kistler, the Ashley fire department chief and another former Brightmark employee, who was Kistler’s supervisor.

Kistler said he and other plant workers who were in the area when the fire broke out are lucky to still be alive.

“If I had been another foot and a half closer, I probably would not be here talking to you today,” he said on a recent balmy evening sitting outside at a Fort Wayne restaurant. “We were in survival mode.”

For its part, Brightmark calls its proprietary process “plastics renewal,” and its Ashley plant a “circularity center,” using buzzwords that are intended to give it an air of environmental responsibility and sustainability. The company markets itself with children using plastic toys and touts a partnership to remove some plastic waste from the ocean.

But reporting by Inside Climate News reveals the May 2021 fire is just one of several environmental health or safety challenges the company has faced since it began testing its plant in 2020 while struggling to fulfill its promise of operating “the world’s largest plastics renewal facility” on a commercial scale.

An earlier fire in July 2020 threatened the lives of at least three plant workers, according to Kistler and his former supervisor, Roy Bisnett. And an oil spill at the plant in August 2022 took weeks to clean up, public records show. 

Another former worker complaining of clouds of plastic dust has sued the company in federal court, claiming lung damage. And a local fire chief says his small volunteer department needs training and new equipment to handle the kinds of fires that occur at refineries and chemical plants, something they had not experienced before. 

Company officials declined a request for an interview. In written responses to questions about the fires, the oil spill and plastic dust in the air, company officials said they take environmental health and safety matters seriously.

“The safety of our employees is our top concern,” the statement said. “Because of the nature of our work, we have developed detailed procedures to ensure everyone’s safety, including robust training on critical areas such as operator procedures, emergency response, and lifesaving protocols. We also run tests regularly to identify other improvements.”

But to an independent oil and gas industry expert like Jan Dell, an engineer who has consulted in more than 45 countries, the environmental, health and safety problems at Brightmark can be expected in a new industry populated by small, start-up companies grappling with difficult-to-impossible technical challenges and highly combustible plastic residues. They are an indicator, Dell said, of why “advanced” or “chemical” recycling of plastics won’t work and actually risks lives.

“They are dangerous chemical facilities that should be regulated as dangerous chemical facilities,” said Dell, who founded and runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a Southern California nonprofit that fights plastic pollution and waste. “They are putting workers, firefighters, and the community at risk.”

In Two and a Half Years, Dashed Hopes

Brightmark broke ground on its Ashley plastics plant in 2019, after purchasing the technology from Ohio-based RES Polyflow the year before. Ashley is about a half mile west of the plant. Its main drag is lined with aging storefronts and American flags. A bright yellow water tower featuring a smiley face and bowtie rises from a city park.

Ashley, Indiana, is known for its yellow smiley face water tower. The Brightmark chemical recycling plant is nearby. Credit: James Bruggers
Ashley, Indiana, is known for its yellow smiley face water tower. The Brightmark chemical recycling plant is nearby. Credit: James Bruggers
A Brightmark billboard near Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers
A Brightmark billboard near Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers

Last summer, on a tour of the plant, Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark and the former RES Polyflow CEO, described his hope to “change the world.”

The facility has three main parts. There is a 120,000-square-foot warehouse where hundreds of tons of mixed household and industrial plastic waste is collected, picked through and sent into a mechanical process to make the pellets. Then, the pellets are sent into pyrolysis chambers, where they are heated to as much as 1,500 degrees in a zero-oxygen environment by burning natural gas and synthetic gas made from plastic waste to make “pyrolysis oil.” The pyrolysis oil then goes to a refinery behind the warehouse, where it’s separated into low-sulfur diesel fuel, liquid naphtha that can be used as a feedstock for new plastic and wax for industrial uses or candles.

In a December 2020 year-end wrap-up, Brightmark founder and chief executive officer Bob Powell celebrated a milestone and promised big things—and quickly.

“We have now financed and built our $260 million, first-of-its-kind plastics renewal facility in Ashley, Indiana,” he wrote. “Our plant is now producing liquids, which was a huge moment for our team. Beginning in (the first quarter) next year, the plant will accept 100,000 tons of plastics each year for conversion into new products – a vastly greater scale than any other facility of its kind in the world.”

But the plant is still trying to move beyond the start-up phase.

Former company employees said in interviews that they believe the company has a poor environmental health and safety record. They said they’re afraid that current employees could be at risk and they questioned whether Brightmark will live up to its promise. They describe an internal culture in which managers allegedly resisted the development of written procedures, took shortcuts that compromised safety and gave short shrift to the kinds of safety procedures common in a chemical plant or refinery run by a large, established company.

One of them, Roy Bisnett, was hired in 2020 to run the plant’s chemical and refinery operations. A Toledo-area resident, his experience was in oil refining and managing environmental health and safety initiatives, working on staff with oil companies or as a consultant.

“I thought this was a very, very interesting thing,” Bisnett said of what Brightmark was trying to accomplish. “There’s a plastic waste issue. I’m in the refining industry, and we can turn this waste into a fuel. It sounded great.

“They said it was proven technology, right? It was already built for the most part. We’d bring people in and train them to get it operating,” he recalled. 

Bisnett said he was excited about the company’s ambitions to take the technology to other parts of the United States and the world, which made it seem like a good opportunity for career growth, Bisnett said.

It didn’t work out that way.

“Fast forward two and a half years, we were still in the same boat but with a lot of mistakes,” said Bisnett, who said he resigned in 2022 because of differences in philosophies over environmental health and safety matters.

He also said it was hard to reconcile the company’s environmental marketing with its environmental and safety performance, citing fires, the handling of the 2022 oil spill, the plastic dust issues and a lack of attention to what he called process safety management and improvement.

“Over the course of my time in the refining industry, we have always strived to learn from past mistakes, in an effort to not repeat them,” he said. “At Brightmark, this was not the case.”

The Brightmark chemical recycling plant in Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers
The Brightmark chemical recycling plant in Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers

For his part, Kistler worked for the company about as long as Bisnett in the same department and was, as Kistler described, Bisnett’s “right hand man.” Brightmark fired Kistler in late 2022, and on May 25, Kistler filed a lawsuit in Indiana state court, claiming wrongful termination and retaliation over a worker’s compensation claim that stemmed from a shoulder injury he suffered on the job.

In an interview, Kistler said Brightmark fired him in part “because I started asking questions and making noise about health, safety, environmental and personnel issues.”

Brightmark said it does not comment on legal matters.

But the company defended its technology, which it says “has been refined over 20 years, making the company a veteran among more nascent technologies in the marketplace. Our circular solutions play a unique role in recapturing the value in waste plastics and returning those raw materials into the circular economy, reducing dependence on virgin fossil fuels for manufacturing products that require plastic.”

Spectacular Blazes With More Intense Heat

Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and fires at plastic recycling facilities can produce spectacular blazes with intense heat and billowing black, toxic smoke, as residents of Richmond, Indiana, in the southwest part of the state, found out in April. There, a stockpile of plastic waste burned for days and 2,000 people were told to evacuate their homes.

So far, the fires at Brightmark have been associated with its chemical plant operations, not its stockpile of waste plastic in the warehouse, according to interviews with former employees and a local fire official. 

Nevertheless, the plant has kept the Ashley Hudson Fire Department of about 20 members busy, responding to at least six or seven fires since 2020, at least one producing a plume of smoke that could be seen 35 miles away in Fort Wayne, said its Fire Chief Dave Barrand.

 “They were in the middle of start-up testing. They were changing out some components and it started spontaneously, combusted and burned up a brand new forklift,” Barrand recalled of the July 2020 fire. 

Bisnett said the fire broke out during one of the first tests of a pyrolysis chamber, sending a jet of flames “out the end of the pyrolysis reactor.” The fire could have been avoided by first conducting a safety check under common industry protocols known as process safety management, he said.

The fire could have been much worse, causing serious injuries or death, Bisnett said, “if the employees hadn’t changed their location just prior to the blowout.”

One of Bisnett’s concerns at the time, and today, is that local firefighters, who are more accustomed to fighting house or small commercial building fires, do not have the training or equipment needed to fight fires at chemical plants or refineries, such as the Brightmark facility. Water can make chemical fires worse, he said. And sometimes a chemical plant fire can be extinguished, but the source, a fast-blowing stream of flammable vapors, can remain, creating a new explosion hazard, he said.

Austin Acker, a volunteer firefighter, cleans a fire truck in at the Ashley volunteer fire department firehouse in May 2023. Credit: James Bruggers
Austin Acker, a volunteer firefighter, cleans a fire truck at the Ashley, Indiana volunteer fire department firehouse in May 2023. Credit: James Bruggers

Barrand agreed and said his department could use a new, larger ladder truck, which could cost as much as $1 million, to reach higher areas in the Brightmark facility, he said. That would allow firefighters to also stay farther away from the heat, which can be more intense in a chemical plant fire, he said. Also, the department could benefit from more fire-retardant foam to fight chemical plant fires and specialized training.

“It’d be kind of nice for all of the department to go and get some kind of refinery training,” Barrand said. “I think I was looking at right around $30,000 or $40,000 to send five people to Texas to get trained.” That would be $120,000 to $180,000 for the department.

He said there has been “some conversation” with Brightmark about the company paying to help with the costs of being ready to fight fires at their plant. “I don’t know how far that went,” he added.

When asked whether the company feels an obligation to assist local firefighters in upgrading their capacity to fight chemical plant fires, Brightmark spokeswoman Aunny De La Rosa-Bathe said: “Brightmark values all the services our local municipality in Ashley provides to support our mission to reimagine waste. Our flagship Circularity Center is equipped with substantial fire prevention and protection equipment throughout.” 

A Slow Oil Spill Response and Lawsuit Over Plastic Dust

In addition to fires, former workers describe oil spills and poor indoor air quality as recurring problems.

Public records show at least one spill was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on Aug. 7, 2022, with initial and subsequent records showing conflicting accounts of its size, from 170 to 366 gallons.

Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said that no violation or fine was issued because the spill occurred within a facility and “a spill response was initiated.”

Both Kistler and Bisnett said they believe the spill was substantially larger.

Kistler said he had found a contractor who could have cleaned up the spill within a week, but was overruled by management that opted for a slower but less expensive response.

Brightmark acknowledged that the availability of a contractor “contributed to the delay. We have since partnered with other third parties to facilitate the process should the need arise. All reportable spills have been reported to required government agencies.”

An oil spill at Brightmark that was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Credit: Kory Kistler
An oil spill at Brightmark that was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Credit: Kory Kistler

Poor air quality inside the warehouse was another problem.

Doug King, who lives in Coldwater, Michigan, 30 miles north of the plant, said he worked for Brightmark for about two years, starting in the fall of 2020, and, like Bisnett, had high hopes of being part of a solution to the plastics problem.

He left the company in May 2022, disillusioned, and having a hard time breathing. He has since filed a federal lawsuit claiming lung damage. He claims Brightmark wrongfully terminated his employment after he brought his health and safety concerns to company management. 

Brightmark denied King’s claims in a Dec. 15, 2022 court document, writing that the company “acted in good faith at all times, and all decisions or actions regarding (King’s) employment were pursuant to its legitimate business purpose and for non-retaliatory business reasons.”

The case recently went to arbitration, according to court records.

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But recent research out of the United Kingdom lends credence to concerns that chopping, shredding and pelletizing plastic waste during the recycling process creates a lot of microplastics—as much as 13 percent of incoming waste at one plant in Scotland that opened its doors to researchers.

Julie Peller, a chemistry professor at Valparaiso University in Northwest Indiana whose research interest includes plastic, said that many people have for a long time accepted that plastic was “pretty benign.” 

“I know that I was under that impression for most of my life, until I started getting into this research,” she said. “And that’s kind of completely wrong. We now realize that most of these materials shed or release particles either on the microplastic level or the nano-plastic level, and they are not as benign.”

Brightmark Timeline Pushed Back

With a global plastics treaty under negotiations and policy debates over plastics occurring in cities, states and at the national level, plastic manufacturers are pushing hard with media, advertising and lobbying campaigns to gain public acceptance of advanced or chemical recycling. 

The industry says that through advanced recycling, a “circular” plastics economy can be created that reduces the need to tap virgin fossil fuels to make its products.

Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in his hand the company’s new chemical recycling plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. The pellets are made from plastic waste and sent into chemical processing equipment to make diesel fuel, naphtha, and wax. Credit: James Bruggers

But the health and safety issues at Brightmark could reflect flaws in the industry’s pursuit of chemical recycling and serve as an indicator of why Brightmark has had such a hard time getting its mechanical and refinery operations to live up to its own expectations of processing at least 100 million tons of mixed waste plastic a year.

Last year, company officials told Inside Climate News they expected to finally have the plant fully operating during 2022. Now, the timeline has been pushed back to sometime in 2023, more than two years later than the company’s prediction in 2020. In March, an IDEM inspector wrote the plant “has yet to create product onsite.”

There are inherent problems with the technology, said Dell, the independent oil and gas industry expert.

Plastic is made with thousands of chemicals and many, especially when mixed together, are incompatible with the processes like pyrolysis, she said.

“I don’t think these processes have been well vetted,” said Peller, the Valparaiso University chemistry professor. “I understand that people don’t want to reveal specifics about their processes, but there should be lots of studies put in place before we see these extremely large industrial processes built,” she said, referring to the Brightmark plant. 

If the Brightmark plant’s technology had been well-vetted on a smaller scale, she pondered, “then why do (they) have so much trouble putting it into a system on a large scale?”

For Kistler, he said he is re-adjusting to a new manufacturing job. He said he decided to speak out because he’s concerned for the health and safety of his former co-workers.

Bisnett has gone back to consulting and said he shares concerns about the company’s workers who are still there.

For him, he said, the final straw was the company’s handling of the oil spill. The cleanup delay, Bisnett said, could potentially have threatened local groundwater, and the slow response was in sharp contrast to the company’s environmental claims on its website and social media. 

But he also said he lost faith in Brightmark.

“Here we were spinning our wheels and trying to make it work,” Bisnett said. “And it’s never going to work. When I made that realization, and that I can’t take any more responsibility for what is going to happen here, it was time for me to go.”

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