“Today is day 54,” Harp, a minister at nearby Deerfoot Church of Christ, said Wednesday. “I’ve made two mortgage payments since the fire and I literally can’t live in my house. … Our home is uninhabitable and not for sale.”
On Wednesday, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) declared a state of emergency over the ongoing fire at the private landfill in St. Clair County, northeast of Birmingham, that has blanketed residents from around the world with smoke since at least November 25 , the day after Thanksgiving.
The fire, Ivey wrote, “has the potential to affect the health, safety and welfare of citizens living nearby.”
This proclamation comes after repeated pleas from local residents who have been evicted from their homes and complained of worsening health effects. It came after a class action lawsuit was filed and after the Environmental Protection Agency began testing air quality around the site.
It came more than two weeks after county officials issued their own declaration of a state of emergency. And after continued confusion over who exactly should be keeping tabs on a private landfill designed only to accept “green” waste like vegetation and tree stumps, but has historically kept tires and other potentially harmful materials on-hand? site.
Ivey’s statement came as state environmental officials formally asked the EPA to lead efforts to extinguish the spreading underground fire, acknowledging they lack the expertise to tackle such a fire.
“It was a huge bureaucratic hurdle,” said Stan Batemon, chairman of the St. Clair County Commission, which declared a state of emergency on Jan. 3. The bureaucracy isn’t there.
Batemon, after nearly a quarter-century as an elected official in the county, said, “This is by far the most helpless feeling I’ve had to contend with. I just feel like I’m not going to get anywhere by getting this situation under control.”
Without state approval, Batemon said the county has no authority to spend public money on private property. Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) claimed that the site is not subject to state oversight because it is used to dispose of plant material, such as shrubs, leaves and other material that is not considered hazardous waste. And yet the same agency had inspected the site several times in the past and reported violations, records show.
“It has revealed gaps in government environmental regulation,” said Michael Hansen, executive director of the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution, which has a ticker on its website tracking how long the fire burns.
Hansen said he’s heard from residents who say they’ve suffered from persistent headaches, scratchy throats and asthma attacks. Others nearby have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and other breathing problems that could be made worse by daily exposure. he said. Some homeowners have windows sealed or air purifiers running 24 hours a day, but little escapes the smoke.
“It’s a long time to be exposed to so much pollution,” said Hansen, who joined others in describing the smoke as a mixture of a massive campfire with a hint of chemical smell.
A lingering concern is whether the landfill, owned by Environmental Landfill, actually contains hazardous materials, despite its green label.
State records show ADEM officials have inspected the site multiple times over the years following complaints, including in 2018 when an inspector found unauthorized waste, including household trash, discarded tires, appliances and construction debris. This inspection report also highlighted the “fire hazard potential” at the site, as well as the “suspected presence of hazardous waste” such as medical, industrial or other hazardous waste.
ADEM said in a statement that the operator complied with a former order to remove such materials, “and subsequent inspections found no regulated materials at the site.”
But many local residents doubt what exactly is in the smoke they inhaled. “I saw tires, creosote telephone poles, and vinyl siding,” Harp said, echoing what other residents have also documented.
A December investigation report by ADEM, after the fire was already burning, shows photos from the site where officials noted the presence of scrap metal, piles of concrete, bricks, cables and other debris. The agency has announced that once the fire is out it will “investigate the site operator and take appropriate enforcement action”.
The operator of the landfill, who could be reached by phone on Thursday, declined to comment.
It is not yet known when the fire will be extinguished.
State environmental regulators have asked the federal government to lead the effort, leaving it to the EPA to determine the most appropriate method to put out the fire, hire a contractor and oversee the work. “Neither ADEM nor the district has the experience or expertise to extinguish a fire of this nature,” the agency’s director, Lance LeFleur, said in a statement.
Alabama officials said the underground blaze poses “extreme hazards” to firefighters and other responders due to the risks of collapse and flare-ups, as well as the amount of plant material buried at the site over the years. “ADEM has no employees or Suppliers it works with that can deal with this type of fire,” the agency said.
While the EPA began air tests around the site earlier this month to measure particle levels and chemicals in the smoke, state regulators have been testing water in nearby streams to determine possible runoff effects from the site.
On Thursday, the EPA said it will proceed after receiving full air monitoring and sampling results.
“The community wants to see action and [residents] are understandably concerned about the impact of the landfill fire on their health, safety and quality of life,” EPA Regional Administrator Daniel Blackman said in a statement. “Today we are putting boots on the ground to fight the fire so everyone affected can breathe a sigh of relief.”
For Candice Jackson, whose home borders the landfill, relief seems a long way off. Amid a sore throat, cough, burning eyes and strange tastes in the mouth, Jackson and her husband packed up their two sons and two dogs before Christmas and left.
They’ve stayed at a hotel, in an RV, and with Jackson’s in-laws for the past few weeks. This week they signed a six-month lease on a rental home, not knowing when they could return home or if all their belongings would be ruined by smoke.
“I wonder what kind of house we have to come back to,” said Jackson, one of the named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed over the fire.
She said she’s concerned about the pollution of local waterways, the long-term health effects on her family, whether they should consider moving – or if it’s even a possibility.
“Who will want to buy this house?” She said.
Ultimately, Jackson said she and many neighbors were angry and heartbroken, but also disappointed in those who should have been paying attention to public health and the environment.
“I don’t know where the collapse was or how that fell through the cracks,” she said, “but I feel like something should be in place to prevent this from ever happening again.”
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