New Mexico plastics fire that released hazardous pollutants could smolder for days

 In Health, Pollution

Firefighters in Albuquerque have contained the fire, which prompted a health alert.

Firefighters in Albuquerque, New Mexico, have contained a gigantic plastics fire that prompted a health alert about hazardous air pollution. But authorities say the debris could still smolder for days.

Responders were dispatched on Sunday afternoon to a facility that manufactures and recycles plastic pipes. By then, flames had ignited a storage yard filled with at least an acre of material — old and new pipes, semi-trailers and ground-up material ready to be recycled.

A thick cloud of black smoke quickly filled the sky, the result of burning high-density polyethylene, authorities said.

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Burning plastic can release toxic chemicals such as dioxins and polyaromatic hydrocarbons into the air. Long-term exposure to those chemicals has been linked to cancer.

“With the sheer volume of what was there, that’s why it was such a massive black plume,” said Robert Arguelles, a lieutenant in the public information office at Bernalillo County Fire and Rescue.

In a health alert on Sunday evening, the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Program warned residents that the smoke was “unhealthy for everyone and people should limit outdoor activity tonight.” Residents were told to shut windows and doors.

The flames also jumped the road just east of the facility, igniting a secondary brush fire that swelled to two acres.

“We’ve had several fires at recycling plants that had been very big fires as well, but this was one of the bigger ones that I can remember in my career,” said Lieutenant Jason Fejer, a public information officer at Albuquerque Fire Rescue.

On Monday, authorities lifted the health alert as the smoke subsided.

Arguelles said firefighters brought the flames under control at about 7:48 p.m. on Sunday. But Fejer noted that plastics fires can create a hard outer layer of debris with some material smoldering underneath, so Albuquerque Fire Rescue is continuing to monitor the site.

“It’s going to be a while before we actually clear crews out of there,” Fejer said.

Authorities said they were lucky the wind didn’t blow smoke in the direction of any residential areas, the closest of which is roughly a mile away.

“The majority of the smoke and pollutants that came off that fire were pushed into an area of Kirtland Air Force Base that’s primarily unpopulated,” Arguelles said.

Fejer said investigators are still trying to determine the cause of the fire. Firefighters were initially dispatched to contain a motor vehicle fire that seemed to have spread to the storage yard, he said, but investigators are also considering whether the storage yard ignited first.

“At this point, residents can go about normal business today,” Arguelles said.


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