Presence of chemicals in landfill fire smoke catalyzes EPA to step in

Smoke rises from an area made up of dirt and piles of logs.

A photo shared by the Moody Fire Department on Dec. 19, 2022 shows smoke billowing from the Environmental Landfill, Inc. site.

Moody Fire Department, Facebook

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will lead efforts to extinguish a mostly underground fire at a private landfill in St. Clair County. 

On Wednesday, Gov. Kay Ivey declared a limited state of emergency due to the fire that’s been burning for nearly two months near Moody. The EPA’s involvement came after the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) asked the federal office to step in. 

“This is a unique situation for our state and obviously for ADEM,” said Lance LeFleur, the department’s director.

The private land, which operates as Environmental Landfill, Inc., was supposed to only take in natural debris, such as trees, limbs and stumps. Records from ADEM show that unauthorized waste like appliances, power poles and construction materials were present at the site. But ADEM maintains that the unauthorized materials were removed before the fire started in late November 2022. 

Previously, ADEM stated that they didn’t have the authority to get directly involved with putting out the fire, nor did the EPA, because the site contained vegetative waste, which is not regulated, and no hazardous materials or regulated waste were involved. 

In early January, the EPA conducted air monitoring near the site, and the results were a catalyst for their involvement.

“We had to bring EPA in for the air testing so that they had a basis for offering their services,” LeFleur said.

The EPA’s air testing found that two chemicals — benzene and 1,3-butadiene — were present above minimal risk levels at monitors close to the smoldering site. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, benzene is released into the air by forest fires, cigarette smoke and car exhaust. It can cause difficulty thinking and changes in heart function in low doses. Research has also found that it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The EPA classifies benzene as a known human carcinogen. The chemical 1,3-butadiene is associated with manufacturing and is also classified as a carcinogen when inhaled.

Levels of trichloroethylene (TCE), a non-natural chemical associated with several types of cancers, were also at heightened amounts at the site. According to Bryan Vasser, a federal on-scene coordinator with the EPA, TCE was not detected in any off-site samples.

There were a number of other chemicals, including acetone and propylene, present in the EPA’s sample, but LeFleur says they were all at or under the minimal risk levels. According to federal guidelines, minimal risk levels are an estimate of the amount of a chemical a person can be exposed to without detectable health risks. 

LeFleur says that ADEM is testing water in the area and in streams near the site. Testing results should be public sometime next week, according to Lefleur. 

Local nonprofits have also been doing air and water testing near the site. Cahaba Riverkeeper released sample results showing runoff from the burning landfill contained chemicals including benzene, toluene and phthalates.

The St. Clair County Commission had already looked for contractors to put out the fire before the EPA took the lead. 

“There were a number of proposals submitted to the county, but the county did not have the expertise to analyze all of the proposals and select the one that would be the best option,” LeFleur said.

The EPA is providing their own contractor “with expertise and proven ability with these kinds of fires,” LeFleur said.

Vasser said officials from the EPA arrived at the site yesterday and began moving around material and dirt at the landfill to prepare to bring in additional dirt to cover the burning areas. 

“The current estimate is it may take between three to five weeks to get the landfill reshaped in a way that it will hold dirt … and once we have it shaped correctly, then we can put dirt on top of it to help smother the fire,” Vasser said.

According to a release from ADEM, this kind of work at the site is expected to cause a temporary increase in smoke. But luckily, Vasser said, the EPA’s method has been successful in the past.

“In our experience, this is a fairly tried-and-true method to extinguish a large pile fire like this,” Vasser said.

The landfill has been burning and expelling smoke for almost two months. People in communities near the landfill have been complaining about negative health effects, purchasing air purifiers and taking additional measures to keep the smoke from entering their homes. The air quality near the site prompted two residents to file a class action lawsuit against the landfill’s owners and operators. LeFleur says that people’s concerns will be addressed by putting out the fire and stopping the smoke.

“It’s taken longer than anybody would have liked for it to take, but we had to go through the process of the state and local community examining and exhausting all of its options before bringing EPA in,” LeFleur said.

This story was updated on Jan. 20 with new information from EPA officials. Additional reporting by Mary Scott Hodgin.


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