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Lawsuit filed over landfill fire near Moody seeks class action status

An arial photo shows smoke billowing from an underground fire at an environmental landfill near Birmingham, Alabama.

An arial photo shows smoke billowing from an underground fire at the Environmental Landfill, Inc. Property in December 2022.

A pair of Trussville residents have filed a lawsuit over the landfill fire that’s been burning for almost two months near Moody. The suit alleges, among other claims, the owners and operators of Environmental Landfill, Inc., have been negligent and calls for compensatory and punitive damages. 

Attorney Mark Ekonen filed the lawsuit on Dec. 21, 2022, in St. Clair Circuit Court on behalf of Candice Jackson and Emmanuel Gomes. The complaint outlines how the ongoing fire and smoke has affected the plaintiffs’ families. It’s caused medical issues and driven them to purchase air purifiers and cleaning equipment to combat the smoke entering their homes. 

Gomes’ two children, who suffer from asthmatic issues, have had severe asthma symptoms since the fire started, according to the suit.

Ekonen has also been dealing with the effects of the fire firsthand.

“I’m not just the attorney that filed the lawsuit. I also live about a mile away from the landfill,” Ekonen said. “So we became aware of the smoke and the fire very early on.”

The complaint cites years of inspections and violations from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management showing that the agency had found unauthorized waste like tires, power poles, construction debris and scrap metal on the property. Many of the documents also note the site’s heightened fire hazard risk. Responses from the landfill operators showed that they took steps to remove unauthorized waste from the property in 2013 and again in 2017. In a 2018 response, ADEM said the site met the criteria for an unauthorized solid waste dump and asked for a closure plan, but the site continued operating. After another inspection in 2020, ADEM documents show that the owners removed unauthorized waste twice in 2021.

However, in the last inspection before the fire started — in August 2022 — the inspector wrote that, while he didn’t see any unauthorized waste, he was informed by one of the operators, Charlie Rich, that unauthorized waste was buried in several areas on the property and that he planned to have it remediated over the next 18 months. Four months later, the fire began. 

The complaint says that the smoke “frequently smells of chemicals” due to the buried unauthorized waste and that an air quality monitor placed near the site has registered unhealthy-to-hazardous levels of particulates.

When contacted at the number associated with Environmental Landfill, Inc., the person who answered said he was unable to comment at this time.

The lawsuit seeks class action status. The proposed class includes owners and occupants of property within a five-mile radius of the landfill. The complaint estimates there could be hundreds of people in the class. Ekonen says there could be even more. 

“It’s going to be significantly more than hundreds, I think, when all is said and done,” Ekonen said.

The fire continues to burn. The St. Clair County Commission issued an emergency declaration on Jan. 3 and is in the process of evaluating bids from private companies who say they will be able to extinguish the fire.

Ekonen says that not much about the situation has changed since he first filed the complaint.

“The people that are surrounding the landfill have been dealing with something that they never expected they would have to deal with,” Ekonen said. “Hopefully through the efforts of the county, they can get the fire put out sooner rather than later. And everybody in this area can start moving beyond having to deal with the smoke and the soot and all that on a daily basis and start putting their lives together,” Ekonen said.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of a plaintiff’s name from “Candace Jackson” to “Candice Jackson.”

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