Lawyer challenges planned burning of a Louisville home as EPA explores alternatives
Plans by Louisville officials to burn down a Highview home where explosives were allegedly being made may be shifting. The homeowner’s lawyer is asking a judge to delay the burn, and city leaders say the Environmental Protection Agency is now exploring alternatives.
The developments came as Mayor Craig Greenberg and other city officials held a community meeting for residents living within half a mile of the home on Applegate Lane. They faced questions about the potential impact of the burn on property values as well as health effects on children and pets. Hundreds of neighbors attended the meeting Monday night, which was held at Highview Baptist Church.
At the top of the meeting, Greenberg announced the EPA will come to Louisville to assess the home as well as any explosives or hazardous materials that remain inside.
“We have asked the EPA to come to Applegate Lane and they will be exploring other options before we move forward with this monitored and controlled burn,” Greenberg said. “That probably means that before this might happen it will be a longer period of time.”
He did not say when EPA officials would arrive in Louisville.
Greenberg and emergency management officials said last week the burn would take place no sooner than the week of August 14. If the city does move forward with that plan, officials said they may need to temporarily evacuate roughly 900 homes and 2,000 residents.
The man police have accused of manufacturing homemade explosives, 53-year-old Marc Hibel, was arraigned on new charges hours before the community meeting.
Hibel was charged with wanton endangerment after officers found picric acid, an explosive known as TNP, and other hazardous chemicals inside his home at 6213 Applegate Lane. He now faces two additional burglary charges for allegedly squatting inside a neighboring house, 6211 Applegate Lane. He pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Hibel’s public defender, Tom Rasinski, filed a motion Monday to preserve evidence located inside his home. Rasinski is asking the court to stop the planned burn, at least until any evidence that may exonerate his client is removed.
“If the home is burned, it will result in the unnecessary destruction of everything that Mr. Hibel owns; and of direct relevance to this matter, any materials that may be used in his defense,” Rasinski argued in court filings.
Evidence that might help Hibel fight his charges, according to the motion, include:
- Documentation of Hibel’s former employment as a chemist “and his current freelance use of his chemistry skills to support himself”
- Any “certifications, training materials … and other items reflecting Mr. Hibel’s extensive knowledge of using” hazardous chemicals
- The presence of safety equipment to prevent fires or chemical spills
- Documentation of Hibel “having permission to use, and a responsibility to upkeep” the property where he was allegedly squatting
Rasinski argues Hibel’s right to due process under the 14th Amendment and his 6th Amendment right to effective counsel require city officials to recover this kind of evidence.
It’s not clear when Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Morris will ruling on the motion. Hibel is expected to be back in court Thursday for a bond hearing.
Hibel is currently being held in the Louisville jail on a $50,000 bond.
Neighbors concerned about health, safety impacts
Residents who attended Monday night’s meeting were asked to submit their questions to city officials in writing.
The questions, read off one by one, reflected concerns about how burning down Hibel’s house along with the chemicals inside could result in an explosion or exposure to toxic smoke.
Jody Meiman, who heads Louisville Metro Emergency Services, said the city is running computer simulations of how a potential smoke plume would move around the area. He said air quality monitoring would be in place during and after the burn, and nearby residents wouldn’t be allowed to return to their homes until air quality was back to normal.
Meiman said officials will be looking for the best possible day to conduct the burn.
“We want a nice, clear day,” he said. “Low humidity. Obviously, light winds because we want the smoke to go up as far into the atmosphere as possible without affecting the community.”
Meiman said neighbors would get word at least 48 hours before an evacuation order. Many roads around the Highview area would be closed to traffic while the burn takes place.
Meiman said he does not expect the burn will cause any large explosion that will damage nearby homes. If everything goes to plan, he said the home will collapse in on itself. Officials declined to say what chemicals or explosives remain on the property.
Louisville Metro Police Chief Jackie Gwinn-Viallroel also assured residents their homes would be protected.
“You will have LMPD doing direct patrols in your area,” Gwinn-Villaroel. “We know how sensitive this is, we know that others will know that you have left your home, so you will have a heavy LMPD presence.”
City officials said they will provide assistance to seniors or people with disabilities who may have a difficult time leaving their home. Louisville Metro Animal Services is also working to set up temporary boarding facilities for people who can’t take their pets.
After the meeting, Carol Walton said she was satisfied.
Walton lives about two blocks from Hibel’s home with her 81-year-old uncle and a pet. She said her biggest concern was what kind of material would be left behind in the burn.
“When they do what they do, how far is the fallout going to go?” Walton said. “The ashes or whatever it is has to come down somewhere, but it sounds like they have a good plan in place to take care of it and make sure everyone’s safe.”
Steven Ward grew up in the Highview neighborhood. He lives about a mile away from Hibel’s house, but still takes care of his mother, who lives two doors down.
Ward said he thinks the situation could have been a lot worse for residents if police hadn’t discovered what Hibel was doing. He said his main concern is how quickly Louisville Metro will clean up the property after the burn.
“Surely they’re going to clean that all up and haul it off somewhere, make it feasible for somebody else to come in and build something there,” he said. “We don’t need a sore spot there to just keep reminding everybody of what was there.”
Ward said he doesn’t think the computer models and planning by city officials will be able to account for everything that could go wrong during a burn. Right now, he said he’s waiting to see what happens and hoping for the best.