Just over one week after hundreds of tons of plastic, and thousands of gallons of fuel burned out of control for hours on a windy afternoon in southeast Albuquerque, there has been no full public accounting of the fire’s environmental effects.
The smoke plume that could be seen for miles on Aug. 6 was the result of burned plastic, metal, rubber, diesel, fuel oil and propane that was stored in a yard next to a plastic fabrication facility, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a state environment official overseeing the cleanup.
As of Monday, city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County air regulators have not said how many people may have been exposed to the smoke.
State water regulators say it is highly unlikely that any of the solid debris or ash from the fire or any water used to fight it seeped into the Rio Grande.
Three scientists in New Mexico with expertise in public and environmental health, and a University of New Mexico lung doctor told Source NM burning plastic is extremely hazardous, and recommended the public wear high-filtration masks and use air purifiers in their homes should anything similar happen again.
In a letter to Albuquerque’s mayor, Pueblo of Isleta Gov. Max Zuni said city emergency management officials reached out on the day of the fire but his government had not received any follow-up for two days about the ongoing impacts and consequences of the pollutants from the fire.
“The threat isn’t over just because the fire is out,” Zuni said in a news release. “The substances used to put out the flames has to go somewhere. It seeps into the ground or flows into the Rio Grande. And Isleta is downstream. The concern is real.”
440,000 pounds of plastic ‘potentially burned’
At 2:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, Albuquerque Fire Rescue was sent to a plastic fabrication facility called Atkore United Poly Systems in the Mesa del Sol area.
They found a vehicle and plastic pipes on fire, according to an AFR news release. The fire’s cause was still under investigation as of Aug. 11, said Albuquerque Fire Rescue public information officer Jason Fejer.
There were 440,000 pounds of plastic stored and “potentially burned” at the United Poly Systems plant, along with 1,500 gallons of diesel fuel, 400 gallons of fuel oil, and 125 gallons of propane, according to data reported to Isleta officials by the EPA.
The plastic pipes were stacked in the yard outside the plastic plant and spanned “a couple acres,” said Stephen Connolly, incident response coordinator for the Hazardous Waste Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department.
Connolly said a 300-gallon tank of diesel and six forklifts all burned to the ground, but said on Aug. 10 he was waiting for Atkore to give him a complete inventory of what burned.
The amount of fire and high winds prompted Albuquerque firefighters to call for more help, according to Albuquerque fire officials. First from more fire crews from within the city, and then from across the region, including Bernalillo County, Kirtland Air Force Base, Corrales, and Sandoval County.
The fire was out of control for five-and-a-half hours until 8 p.m. on Aug. 6, and continued to emit smoke until 11 a.m. on Aug. 7, Fejer said. Cleanup crews that afternoon uncovered smoldering debris, he said.
Plastic smoke exposure causes cancer, lung disease
New Mexico State Climatologist Dave DuBois has been studying air quality and atmospheric science for two decades and worked at NMED’s Air Quality Bureau for more than three years.
DuBois said when polyethylene burns, it creates gasses and very small particulate matter that can cause cancer.
Short-term health effects of being exposed to the pollution from the fire could include cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness, according to Dr. Sara Assaf, a lung doctor and intensivist at UNM Hospital and Sandoval Regional Medical Center.
Long-term health effects could include cancer, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), or silicosis, according to Dr. Gayan Rubasinghege, an environmental toxicologist at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology who studies the health effects of airborne mine dust and wildfire smoke.
The New Mexico Department of Health deferred all questions about this story to the New Mexico Environment Department.
Connolly said he had not been made aware of any type of health screening of people living in the area around the fire, but there has been health monitoring of the company’s workers.
Cleanup crews at the site are wearing personal protective equipment rated for “Level C,” which is when the concentration and type of airborne substances makes it necessary to wear air purifying respirators, according to the EPA.
The firefighters wear protective gear including air packs and masks, Fejer said. None of them reported exposures or injuries on scene or in the days after, he said.
“The fire threatened the community’s health during a heat wave, leaving residents to decide whether to use their evaporative air conditioners and expose their homes to hazardous pollutants, or to suffer through the extreme temperatures,” Zuni said. “The fire also put at risk surrounding wildlands in the height of wildfire season.”
Plastic plant sits above Rio Grande aquifer
The storage yard sits above the Rio Grande groundwater aquifer, and about three-quarters of a mile from the Tijeras Arroyo, which flows into the Rio Grande’s surface water upstream of the Pueblo of Isleta, followed by Los Lunas and Belen.
What’s left behind by the fire might contain heavy metals and gasoline, Connolly said, which means there is benzene.
Rubasinghege said if polyethylene or polypropylene burns, it can generate volatile organic compounds which could include styrene or benzene, which could cause cancer.
He said the fire could have also generated polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which is also known to cause cancer.
As the fire raged, Atkore built earthen berms around it so none of the water used to fight it would leave the property, at the direction of Hazardous Waste Bureau officials.
NMED spokesperson Matthew Maez said the berms and other culverts contained the water. Some water seeped into dirt around the storage yard’s asphalt bottom, he said, but the depth to groundwater there is close to 400 feet, making it “highly unlikely that fire-fighting water reached groundwater.”
“No water reached any surface water, including the Rio Grande,” Maez said.
Bernalillo County Fire Department Spokesperson Robert Arguelles said Monday that no foam was used to put out the fire, only water. He said the county initially asked the Air Force to use firefighting foam, but reversed after figuring out it wouldn’t make a difference.
Connolly said Atkore United Poly Systems took samples on Aug. 9 on and around the property to determine what exactly is in the ash and debris left by the fire.
He said they also collected the water used to fight the fire, sampled it, and categorized it into possible hazardous waste including heavy metals, and petroleum hydrocarbons from the burning plastic.