The Environmental Protection Agency is taking over efforts to put out a long-burning landfill fire in Moody, Alabama, federal officials said Thursday.
The landfill has been burning since November 25, producing smoke that is making residents sick.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency Wednesday over the fire.
“EPA’s first priority is to ensure the well-being of residents. … The community wants to see action and is understandably concerned about the impact of the landfill fire on their health, safety and quality of life,” EPA Region 4 Administrator Daniel Blackman said in an agency announcement.
The underground blaze consumes the vegetation disposed of on the site along with other non-organic materials that create the smoke.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management called the EPA after exhausting state-level options due to the federal agency’s greater capacity.
“Neither ADEM nor the county have the experience or expertise to put out a fire of this nature. EPA uses contractors with experience and knowledge to perform this type of work… The most effective and safest way to put out the fire is for EPA to lead the effort,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said in an agency press release .
Officials in St. Clair County, the site of the landfill, concurred with ADEM’s assessment.
“The most important thing is to extinguish the fire as quickly as possible and provide relief to residents of communities affected by the smoke. The county is limited in what it can do. The EPA, with its expertise and resources, is clearly in the best position to deal with the fire,” said Stan Batemon, chair of the St. Clair County Commission.
The EPA decided to intervene based on air samples from the landfill, which showed elevated levels of the carcinogens benzene, which can cause leukemia, and trichlorethylene, which can cause kidney cancer.
“The levels of benzene and trichlorethylene, TCE, in the air samples were above our risk-based numbers,” EPA investigator on the ground, Terry Stilman, told Alabama-based news site AL.com.
While benzene can be made through natural processes, including burning plants, TCE is a man-made chemical.
“TCE itself is not an indication of green material. So we don’t know exactly where that came from. … We don’t know exactly what the burning material is that’s causing this,” Mr. Stilman told AL.com.
Residents, meanwhile, continue to suffer from the health effects of the smoke.
“You wake up at 4 a.m. in the middle of the night and you smell burnt rubber. There was even one [asthma] Episode where I had to call the paramedics,” Breanne Cook, whose family was forced to evacuate due to the smoke, told WBRC, a Birmingham Fox affiliate.
While the privately owned landfill is officially designated for vegetation only, local residents say they’ve seen many man-made products on the site causing dangerous smoke.
“I saw tons of tires on this property. I’ve seen PVC pipes, plastic, appliances, aluminum paneling. … There’s a ridiculous amount, a super dangerous amount, of carbon dioxide in the air, but also benzene, acetone and other things,” St. Clair County resident Brittany Jones told Courthouse News.
Officials say they have not set a timeline for when the fire can be finally extinguished.