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Residents near Indiana plastics fire report snowlike debris falling and a taste of chemicals in the air

Debris found 1.5 miles from the blaze in Richmond contained asbestos, the EPA said.
Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire in Richmond, Ind., on April 13, 2023.
Firefighters pour water on an industrial fire Thursday in Richmond, Ind.Michael Conroy / AP

NEW PARIS, Ohio — Some debris from a giant fire at a plastics recycling plant in Indiana contains asbestos, officials warned Thursday, as firefighters inched closer to fully dousing the blaze.

The fire, which has been burning since Tuesday afternoon, sent black smoke over Richmond and surrounding towns in eastern Indiana and western Ohio. Officials quickly warned that the smoke could contain cancer-causing toxins.

Shortly before 9 p.m. Mayor Dave Snow said the fire was finally out.

"The fire has been fully extinguished ahead of schedule," Snow tweeted. "We’re now able to turn our attention to collecting air and water samples to determine when the evacuation order can be lifted."

Crews with bulldozers and backhoes were used to get deeper into the plastics facility, which contained large amounts of shredded and bulk recycled plastic, according to city officials.

Residents in the area were instructed to steer clear of anything that's landing in residential yards, given that debris recovered 1.5 miles from the fire was found to contain asbestos, according to Jason Sewell, an on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency. 

"Probably the worst thing you can do if you have debris in your yard ... would be to mow and break up that material," Sewell said, because that would raise the risk of inhaling it.

"Don't disturb the debris for now. Avoid mowing until we come out with more instructions on outdoor cleanup," he added.

Asbestos is a carcinogen. Exposure can cause various forms of mesothelioma — a cancer of the membranes lining the chest and abdomen — as well as lung and ovarian cancer.

The EPA said test results from air samples would most likely be known by Friday morning.

The fire has been sending snowlike debris into nearby towns, residents said.

"Just started falling like snow — it was just floating through the air, and we had a bunch of it land in the yard," said Elizabeth Castellanos, who lives in New Paris, Ohio. "We didn’t actually know what it was until it hit the ground. And one of our neighbors was like, 'That’s debris from that fire,' and then we noticed more and more started floating through the air."

Castellanos said she had planned to have a belated Easter celebration in her yard this weekend, but that's now in doubt.

"Not with all the debris laying around," she said. "I mean, it’s gonna just continue if it’s still laying and nobody can pick it up or touch it ... or mow the lawn. It’s just going to keep spreading."

Jo Fields, a food preparer who lives in the half-mile evacuation zone, said Thursday that she could see an improvement in the surrounding environment.

"I can breathe a little bit. It's not quite as bad today," Fields said. "You can see it — it's a lighter smoke, not really, really bad like it had been. This looks like a bonfire versus a black rolling smoke."

Fields, 60, said the sights, sounds and smells of Richmond this week were nothing like she'd experienced before. She chose to remain in town to care for loved ones with medical needs who can't leave easily.

"It was the plastic, the chemicals. It was a taste I'll never want to have again," she said. "I was covering my face with my shirt."

Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington and an NBC News medical analyst, urged residents near Richmond to trust their noses and act accordingly.

"If you smell it, you’re likely breathing it in this case," Gupta told MSNBC. "The types of chemicals that get released from plastic burning, you should be able to smell it."

Public schools in Richmond, a city of around 35,700 about 70 miles east of Indianapolis, will remain closed Friday for the third day in a row.

Food delivery driver Cole Baxter, 26, who lives in nearby Williamsburg, Indiana, said he stopped work early the day the fire started because of the smoke.

Baxter said he has so far declined to work within a mile of the fire but can't turn down all Richmond jobs.

"I don't really have a choice. I can't keep missing work," he said.

Maggie Vespa and Selina Guevara reported from New Paris and David K. Li from New York City.