As the Atkore United Poly Systems fire was burning in southeast Albuquerque, Dr. Johnnye Lewis was receiving calls from people living in the Nob Hill neighborhood about six miles to the north wondering why their throats were burning.
They told her they received no alerts about the plastic fire because they had not opted into the city’s email list for health alerts.
Lewis is a member of the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board, through which the city and county are supposed to regulate local air quality. She was speaking during a regular Board meeting on Aug. 9.
“There were no banner alerts on public broadcasting networks,” she said.
She said the Amber Alert network is a reverse-dial network for anyone in a given geographic region.
Board Chair Maxine Paul said Amber Alert would be a better technology to use in situations like this. In Albuquerque, this system is called ABQ ALERT.
Asked for comment on the suggestions by those sitting on the Board and members of the public, the city’s Environmental Health Department said this week that they could have tapped into the Amber Alert system, but chose not to.
“With the wind conditions we were experiencing and AFR and BernCo Fire’s ability to extinguish the fire quickly, it was not necessary for us to extend the health alert or create any additional panic among Albuquerque residents,” said Maia Rodriguez, a spokesperson for the department.
There is an exception that allows the city to use the federal Wireless Emergency Alert System to send to an entire targeted area like Amber Alerts, Rodriguez said, but the city chose not to trigger that exception.
“While the City does have the capability to tap into that system when needed, this event did not require such a use,” Rodriguez said. “The Wireless Emergency Alert System alerts only cover critical emergency situations.”
During public comment, Thomas De Pree, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, said there was no cohesive disaster response to the plastic fire.
He said UNM would like to open a dialogue about what capacity the city and state governments have to figure out exactly where air pollution spreads in the local landscape, called “atmospheric deposition modeling.”
“The Amber Alert and the reverse-dialing systems to alert everyone who could be in the pathway of that atmospheric deposition is key,” De Pree said.
Lewis said it would be really helpful for a reverse message system to send alerts to any phone in the vicinity of a fire.
“Something like that would have been really helpful, because I think people were really at a loss for information,” Lewis said. “We don’t have an effective plan in place to notify the whole public about these steps as they go forward.”
Rodriguez said the alerts can include those “involving imminent threats to safety or life,” or those “conveying recommendations for saving lives and property,” national alerts issued by the president or the head of FEMA, or those about missing children.
She did not answer Source NM’s question about who at the city made the decision that the plastic fire did not rise to the level of an “imminent threat to safety or life.”
‘You should be part of a much broader solution’
Paul said board members want Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department to follow up with the incident commanders for fire response, and emphasize the importance of public health.
She said the Board will review the incident, how the commanders and the city work together, “and what those lessons learned will be.”
Environmental Health Department Associate Director Christopher Albrecht represented the department at the Aug. 9 meeting. Its director, Angel Martinez, Jr., was not present.
In response to the board member’s criticisms, the first thing Albrecht said was to emphasize that Albuquerque Fire and Rescue was in command of the scene.
“As I stated, AFR was the incident command,” he said, and then explained to Lewis the purpose of incident command.
“So any time an emergency response — whatever they felt was necessary, it’s out of my purview,” he said.
Lewis said there must be coordination between Albrecht, first responders, and everyone else, so that more people have access to the health alerts.
“I think what the whole country is learning with these kinds of situations — with woodsmoke coming into the city, with any of these incidents — we have to, somehow, a regionally coordinated response,” Lewis said. “What became really clear on (Aug. 6) is, we don’t have that. So I’m not blaming you.”
Albrecht interrupted her, “No.”
And Lewis continued, “But I’m saying you should be part of a much broader solution that works between the city and the county, and all those departments.”
Lewis said she and others on the board felt left out.
Celerah Hewes, a southeast Albuquerque resident and national field manager at Moms Clean Air Force, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, said she’s concerned there was not a communication about the amount of smoke, or making clear “that it’s not just a normal fire.”
“I felt like there was a lack of communication about that danger to people that were nearby,” Hewes said.
She was already aware that when plastic burns it is highly toxic, releasing cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, and that there are rules about plastic incineration under the federal Clean Air Act for a reason.
She thinks there needed to be more discussion in the alerts of what was burning and what that means, not just that something was burning.