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Feds step in to extinguish Alabama landfill fire

Local and state agencies have been outmatched in a battle to suppress an underground fire at an Alabama landfill, where surrounding residents claim toxic smoke is taking a toll on their health.

(CN) — Brittany Jones said when her parents first purchased their home in St. Clair County, Alabama, about three decades ago, it was adjacent to two open, inactive strip mines. One was later dammed up to create a lake, an amenity for the community. The second was purchased for commercial purpose and became a disposal site for environmental debris, a liability for the community.   

Sometime around March 2022, her parents started noticing foul odors coming from the landfill. They assumed it was rubber burning, but they could not see any smoke. The odors continued for months until the day after Thanksgiving, when a fire erupted on the site and within hours, threatened to consume her parents’ home and several others in the vicinity. 

The Alabama Department of Forestry and several local fire departments responded, managing to contain the blaze with fire breaks. But they could not extinguish the fire itself, which was fueled by debris buried deep within the landfill.

As it continued to burn, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management fielded dozens of calls and released a statement in late December noting “unauthorized solid waste” had been removed from the site in the past, but suggesting vegetative matter was burning and the resulting smoke “is similar to that associated with a forest fire.”

But Jones said she doesn’t believe ADEM was being transparent about the burning material. 

“I've seen tons of tires on that property, I've seen PVC pipe, plastic, appliances, aluminum siding … you name it, it’s out there,” she said. 

The state and local response was underwhelming and at times unnerving, Jones said, with her parents being told little could be done because the fire was on private property and the state didn’t have the resources to extinguish it. The only substantial air quality testing performed at the time was conducted by a nonprofit organization, the Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, or GASP. Their results were alarming

“There is a ridiculous amount, a super hazardous level of carbon dioxide in the air, but also benzene, acetone and other things,” Jones said. “If the safe levels were 20 parts per million, our testing showed 1,500 parts per million.”

A class action lawsuit was filed against the owners and operators of the landfill on Dec. 21, with plaintiffs alleging their health, quality of life and property values have been negatively impacted. Jones said several people have temporarily moved out of their homes and her parents are currently looking for their own temporary accommodations. 

“I grew up in that community and it just breaks my heart, it scares me for everybody out there,” Jones said. 

On Jan. 3, the St. Clair County Commission adopted a local state of emergency and on Wednesday Governor Kay Ivey issued a limited state of emergency, asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to tackle a problem that is too complex for the state.

“By authorizing the EPA to respond to this fire, we are ensuring it will be addressed in the fastest and safest way possible,” Ivey said in a statement. “It is imperative that this situation be solved and solved right for the sake of the folks in Moody and all people affected by this fire.” 

On Thursday, the EPA announced, after reviewing the results of its own recent air quality testing in the area, it would assume the role of lead agency at the scene and attempt to extinguish the fire.

While results of the EPA’s testing were not immediately available, the agency said it occurred Jan. 6-7 and included “three rounds of 8-hour samples for a total of 24 hours of monitoring and sampling, which was intended to measure particulate concentrations as well as chemical constituents in the emissions from the fire.”

"EPA’s first priority is to ensure the wellbeing of the residents… the community wants to see action and are understandably concerned about the landfill fire’s impact on their health, safety and quality of life,” said Region 4 Administrator Daniel Blackman. “Immediately following ADEM’s request, EPA mobilized to gather critical data. Based on the results of that data, it was clear that further action was necessary. Today, we are putting boots on the ground to address the fire so that all impacted can breathe a sigh of relief.”

According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, some 8,000 to 10,000 landfill fires are reported in the United States each year, creating harmful emissions known to exacerbate respiratory or health problems. 

Tony Sperling, a landfill engineer based in British Columbia who specializes in landfill fires, said underground landfill fires are common but are usually the result of poor engineering. Modern landfills are often built with firewalls in the interior, as well as fire detection and suppression systems on the exterior. 

“What you have is a lot of organic material that is degrading under pressure, creating high temperatures that quite often result in spontaneous combustion,” Sperling said. “If a landfill has not been properly constructed, or properly filled, it can be full of air pockets and fuel and it just feeds on itself.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to requests for more information about its plan to extinguish the fire, but Sperling said the agency will most likely either excavate the debris and extinguish the fire with water or attempt to smother it with a layer of nonporous dirt or clay.

“It’s very dependent on the conditions of the site but it is very labor intensive, expensive and hazardous work,” he said. 

Lieutenant James Mulkey, a fire inspector with the Moody Fire Department, said he was disheartened by the fire. 

“We don’t have the technology or the manpower to extinguish a fire like this,” he said. “Our role there has kind of ended, although we stand by to assist in any way we can. I do feel so sorry for the people affected, they have been the first and foremost of every discussion we’ve had about it with every local and state agency.”

Mulkey praised the immediate local response to the surface fire, which was contained to the property and did save several surrounding houses from the flames, he noted. But how long could the fire continue to burn?

“I don’t have an answer to that, unfortunately,” he said.

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