Albuquerque plastic fire gives air regulators opportunity ‘to make the right decision’

Massive, toxic fire comes as grassroots community groups push for historic air regulation

By: - August 17, 2023 5:05 am

Children take part in South Valley Pride Day on April 23, 2023. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

Richard Moore started getting phone calls from his neighbors in the South Valley on Aug. 6.

He followed the path of the smoke, and decided to go up to Mesa del Sol where the Atkore United Poly Systems fire was still burning.

Ten days after the plastic fire, there has still been no official report to residents on the health impacts of the smoke created by burning plastic.

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

“We have always been the last to be informed of what the situation is, and what we should be doing,” said Moore, co-founder of Los Jardines Institute, an educational and agricultural nonprofit in the South Valley. “This is how we define environmental racism.”

Moore says the plastic fire on Aug. 6 is “a prime example” of why the local air quality authority must pass a rule that would protect the health of not just communities in the South Valley, but the entire city of Albuquerque.

The air pollution caused by the plastic fire is exactly what is meant to be mitigated and prevented by the Health, Environment & Equity Impacts Regulation, which is currently under consideration and will go up for a final vote in October.

A history of environmental racism in the South Valley

Since shortly after its founding in 1993, the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board has been hearing testimony from local residents about the combined impacts of many polluting facilities in one place — not just one, two or three, but a feeling of being surrounded.

The Mountain View neighborhood and the broader South Valley community on the southern edge of Albuquerque have for decades been neglected by local, state and federal agencies, Moore says.

Up and down Broadway Boulevard, one can see oil terminals, wrecking yards, chemical storage facilities, and the sewage plant. There used to be one of the largest poultry farms in the area, a hog farm, and the local race track.

The people here have had high levels of asthma, cancer and other health issues disproportionately concentrated in similarly low-income working class communities of color and Indigenous communities, Moore said.

At the end of the day, we are an expendable population.

– Richard Moore

The South Valley is also downhill from Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Labs, and the airport. Planes used to fly directly over residents’ homes as they were taking off and landing, cracking their foundations.

Over the last 50 years of struggle over environmental justice in the South Valley, Moore said, whenever industry is looking for a place to locate their facilities, consulting agencies have told them to look for low-income communities, those that may be perceived as uneducated communities, or those communities that do not have what’s perceived as political clout.

And by the time the local community gets engaged in the permitting process for these facilities, the decisions have already been mostly made behind closed doors, Moore said.

Nitrates were found in the groundwater in the 1960s, but authorities only told residents to dig deeper wells to get their drinking water, until 1984 when a child was poisoned and hospitalized with methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome.

“We don’t say this too lightly: the county, city, state, and federal government was aware that we were drinking and bathing in contaminated water, and chose not to tell us, because at the end of the day, we are an expendable population,” said Moore.

For a time, locals had to get drinking water from trucks parked outside Mountain View Elementary School, Moore said. After that, most residents were connected to city water.

“Many of us that were asked by our elders to continue carrying these issues forward, we’re just doing what we were asked to do,” Moore said.

Moore also currently co-chairs the inaugural White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and was the first chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

“This history has been going on for a long, long time, and now’s the time that we can do something about it,” Moore said. “The Air Quality Board has this moment in history, to make the right decision and to protect all people in the city of Albuquerque.”

What is the new rule proposal?

The proposal is the first-ever air quality regulation to be petitioned by the community and given a rulemaking hearing. It’s also the first air quality regulation proposed to the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board that is more stringent than state or federal law.

The Mountain View Coalition includes the Mountain View Neighborhood Association, Mountain View Community Action, and Friends of Valle de Oro.

The New Mexico Environmental Law Center in November 2022 filed the petition on behalf of the Coalition asking the Board to adopt the rule.

“Public health and environmental impacts from air pollution in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are heavily concentrated in low-income and neighborhoods of color causing increased risk of disease and lower life expectancy in those neighborhoods,” the petition states.

‘It smelled like plastic. That creates a memory’

The regulation is a “cumulative impacts rule,” meaning that in order for a polluting facility to get a permit, the city’s Environmental Health Department must first figure out the overall environmental and health impacts of that facility being near other polluting facilities already in place.

In other words, whenever a polluting facility is proposed, there would have to be a health screening of the population in the area, along with an environmental screening that determines nearby existing threats to the environment, and the implications of those threats when paired with the new facility.

Since the petition was filed, 145 groups and individuals in New Mexico have signed on to a letter of support for the rule, according to a spokesperson for the Environmental Law Center.

Once the rule is adopted, activists say it will have resounding effects across New Mexico.

“Precedents will be set in the state of New Mexico, if this regulation takes place,” Moore said.

Similar rules and state laws meant to address disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color have been passed in other places, according to the petition, including Minnesota and New Jersey.

If the Board passes, enforces and implements the rule, it will have the most protected air quality regulation in New Mexico.

“We believe that this is one of the most significant grassroots environmental justice efforts in Bernalillo County, ever,” said Marla Painter, president of Mountain View Community Action, one of the groups in the Coalition.

Rule made possible by state law passed in 2021

Albuquerque-Bernalillo County and Native nations are the only places in New Mexico with their own air regulators.

Air quality in the rest of New Mexico is regulated by the state government, which has the power to make rules more stringent than federal law if deemed necessary to protect the public welfare.

The New Mexico Legislature passed and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed in 2021 Senate Bill 8, which gave some of that power to the Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Air Quality Control Board.

When the bill was going through the Roundhouse in Santa Fe, the state environment department said it was “critical to efforts to mitigate regional and statewide air pollution,” and to accomplish the greenhouse gas emission reductions required under Lujan Grisham’s executive order on climate change.

“The federal air quality regulatory scheme does not comprehensively address all sources and pollutants that affect air quality in New Mexico,” NMED reported to legislative analysts at the time.

Who is making the rules?

Proponents of the rule say the Air Quality Control Board’s members are citizens who are interested in air quality, and who are in a critical position to rule in favor of public health and welfare.

At least thirteen lawyers are representing various big business interests, local and federal government, and the military, which are all opposed to the rule, according to Air Quality Control Board records.

In April, some of the businesses tried and failed to disqualify three Air Board members and the Board in its entirety from participating in the rulemaking. An attorney representing these interests accused the Board of being biased.

“We’re up against some major players here,” Moore said. “We have a particular self interest in protecting the health, safety and well-being of our families and our communities, and then they have a particular level of self interest.”

Business interests in opposition include the New Mexico Mining Association, the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, the Associated Contractors of New Mexico, and the Asphalt Pavement Association of New Mexico.

They are joined by concrete and construction companies including Albuquerque Asphalt, Inc.; Black Rock Services, LLC; Vital Consulting Group, LLC; Mountain States Constructors, Inc.; GCC Rio Grande Inc.; Western Refining Terminals, LLC; and HF Sinclair Asphalt Company, LLC.

Military interests opposed to the rule include Kirtland Air Force Base and the National Technology & Engineering Solutions of Sandia, LLC, the private contractor that runs Sandia National Laboratories, which is owned by the U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration.

The University of New Mexico Board of Regents has also thus far opposed parts of the regulation.

The air quality rule is not just an issue for the South Valley, but for the entire city of Albuquerque, and the surrounding counties, Moore said. He is asking the public to get educated about it, and contact their city councilors and state lawmakers.

“We’re just as concerned about all of us, including the workers in those facilities,” Moore said. “Any moment of justice that folks receive, everybody is going to benefit from it.”


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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.