‘It smelled like plastic. That creates a memory’

City says plastic smoke was carried ‘away from populated areas.’ People’s noses tell a different story. 

By: and - August 16, 2023 5:05 am

A screenshot from video footage recorded by a drone flying near the The Atkore United Poly Systems fire in southeast Albuquerque on Aug. 6, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Albuquerque Fire and Rescue)

Celerah Hewes lives in southeast Albuquerque. On Aug. 6, she was driving home from the grocery store and happened to see the smoke plume from the Atkore United Poly Systems fire.

“Otherwise I would never have known,” she said. “I would have stayed in my house, my swamp cooler on, and maybe had no idea that there was an air quality issue.”

As of Tuesday, city and state authorities still have not said publicly how much smoke the fire generated. They also have not provided any detailed documentation of where the smoke went.

Burned plastic, metal, fuels released into Albuquerque sky by fire at plastic facility 

Through a spokesperson, the city of Albuquerque Environmental Health Department said the smoke drifted south by southeast “away from populated areas.”

“Our focus was to monitor wind conditions to ensure the plume did not shift and reach populated areas,” Albuquerque environmental health spokesperson Maia Rodriguez said. “We’re grateful that the fire departments were able to extinguish (it) before that could happen.”

Hewes and other Albuquerque residents’ own senses tell them otherwise.

Even if the smoke was only pushed south by southeast, those areas would include the city’s neighbors who live in Isleta Pueblo, said Ramona Montoya, with the Pueblo of Isleta Environmental Department.

“We take that kind of release very seriously,” Montoya said. “We’re really quite concerned about what gets deposited from the air that is a pollutant that was introduced elsewhere.”

Isleta community members told Montoya they were alarmed just driving past the fire on Interstate 25.

“They said it smelled like plastic,” Montoya said. “Now that just creates a memory that we think we just have to follow up and address.”

At a regular meeting on Aug. 9 similar stories about the smell of plastic came up at the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board, through which the city of Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are supposed to regulate local air quality.

A city spokesperson who was working as the backup public information officer on Aug. 6 told the Board that she started receiving phone calls from community members before her work phone went off.

“As soon as that happened, the group at EHD that’s responsible for issuing health alerts was on it,” she said. “We moved as fast as we could and used the network that we have set up.”


Hewes is the national field manager at Moms Clean Air Force, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. Her work is all about clean air, and she didn’t even know Albuquerque has an air alert system.

“So I signed up for that when I saw the smoke because I was trying to figure out what was happening, and I could not find anything online,” he said.

To find details, she had to go to the city’s Environmental Health Department’s account on social media, where she found it on X (formerly known as Twitter).

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Program is issuing a Health Alert due to smoke from a structure fire in Mesa del Sol. Plastics are burning and the smoke contains hazardous air pollutants. Effective: 5:00 PM on 8/6/2023 Expires: 10:00 AM on 8/7/2023
The health alert published by the city of Albuquerque, nearly three hours after firefighters were first dispatched to the Atkore United Poly Systems fire.

“This smoke is unhealthy for everyone,” the department wrote. They urged people in the city and the county to limit outdoor activity that night.

“That’s great that they were sharing it out there, but for most people, they wouldn’t even think to look there,” Hewes said. “How do we make this more accessible to more people so that we can be prepared and we should be protecting our air?”

Hewes is concerned about how Albuquerque does emergency alerts, and says notifications need to be made more readily available to the public.

Living in a worsening climate crisis, it would make sense for government bodies to advertise there is an emergency alert system, she said, so next time there is a wildfire or an air quality issue, people who have opted in at least have that information.

“There was no communication,” Hewes said. “Who do we depend on? We would depend on our elected officials and our government to make sure that we are remaining safe.”

Turning off swamp coolers not really an option

It was 98 degrees when the fire started on Aug. 6. Authorities told people to use their swamp coolers sparingly, or to set them to recirculate.

New Mexico is in a unique situation with any contaminants and particulate matter from fires being blown in our homes, Hewes said.

“Those aren’t viable options,” Hewes said. “When you have a swamp cooler, you turn it off, your house gets warm. Especially in the late afternoon, your house is retaining heat.”

She doesn’t think a normal swamp cooler’s filter would properly filter the pollution out of the air.

She chose to keep her swamp cooler off that night, but she thinks that is impossible for anyone who is sensitive to heat, including children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention children breathe in more air per pound than adults do and pollutants in their lungs can cause damages that impact them for the rest of their lives. Air pollution can also harm the children pregnant women carry before they are born, potentially reducing lung growth, the American Lung Association says.

“So when you have any kind of threat like toxic chemicals that are in the air, children are ingesting more of that than an adult,” Hewes said.

She suggests there should be an alert system that tells all schools and school districts about an air quality alert which would impact children’s health.

In response to questions from Source NM, Albuquerque’s Environmental Health Department said it is working with the New Mexico Environment Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on next steps for environmental assessments.

Rodriguez said it has not detected levels of particulate matter from the plastic fire “that would cause concern.”

She provided a graph showing “good” air quality levels recorded by all of the department’s air quality monitors between Aug. 5 and Aug. 8. But the graph does not provide granular detail limited to the immediate area around the fire.

AQI 20230805-202308-08 (002)


For example, at 3 p.m. on Aug. 7, one of the city’s air quality monitors located in the South Valley recorded PM10 at 250 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

That translates to an air quality index level of 148, which is at the upper limit of the air quality level deemed “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”

During that time period, the same monitor recorded PM2.5, an even smaller particulate matter, at 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

That translates to an air quality index level of 99, which is at the upper limit of the air quality deemed “moderate.”

Atkore United Poly Systems is analyzing how the smoke dispersed, and has taken samples downwind from the site of the fire, said Stephen Connolly, incident response coordinator for the Hazardous Waste Bureau of the New Mexico Environment Department.

“I think they continue to, so they can model what might have happened,” Connolly said on Aug. 10.

Pueblo of Isleta Gov. Max Zuni on Aug. 10 invited the mayor along with other local, state and military officials to meet on Aug. 21 and discuss the consequences of expanded industrial development in southern Bernalillo County.

City officials told The Paper they would take part in the meeting; in a quote to the newspaper, they carefully referred to its topic as a “potential” contamination.


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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.

Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.