ST. CLAIR COUNTY, Ala. (WIAT) — When the Environmental Landfill Inc. caught fire in Moody back in November, neighbors had no idea it would continue to burn for more than two months. It’s forced some people out of their homes and caused a number of health-related issues.
“Within a week we started getting smoke inhalation symptoms,” said Frank Reade, who lives directly across the street from the landfill. “Headache, fatigue, cough, chest pains.”
Symptoms like those have been a common theme for neighbors close to the landfill, who were demanding action for weeks before anything was done.
“This was the first time that we’ve seen this type of a fire,” Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) Director Lance LeFleur told CBS 42 back on Jan. 18. That same day, LeFleur announced the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would be stepping in to lead the efforts to put out the fire.
While it was a victory for residents impacted by the smoke, the problem is far from over.
“Letting it smolder like that and letting us breathe this in, this is on the state,” Reade told CBS 42.
While we don’t know who or what started the fire, we did our own research into the state’s records on the Environmental Landfill.
ADEM’s own documents show the state agency knew the landfill was a fire hazard since 2013. Even as recent as August 2022, ADEM records say the dump posed a potential fire hazard.
The documents also show materials like construction debris, demolition waste and petroleum-contaminated soil were illegally dumped at the Environmental Landfill, which was never even permitted to be a landfill in the first place.
“This fire was absolutely preventable,” said GASP Executive Director Michael Hansen. “ADEM’S documents show that they performed inspections, found unauthorized materials and failed to act in a way that would prevent this from taking place.”
The EPA also told us more could have been done to prevent this fire.
“Generally landfills are required to cover their material, either every day or every few days,” said EPA Landfill On-scene Coordinator Terri Stilman. “And that’s usually written out in their permit. In this case there was not systematic covering every day, so that’s in some ways a way to reduce landfill fires.”
ADEM denied us an on-camera interview when we questioned them about the fire hazard, but sent us this statement over email:
It is important to note that neither ADEM nor any other state agency has authority to regulate vegetative waste disposal sites. When ADEM received complaints of non-vegetative wastes being present on the site near Moody, ADEM investigated. When non-vegetative wastes were indeed found at the site, ADEM told the site operator to remove those wastes. Follow-up inspections confirmed that efforts were being made to remove non-vegetative wastes.
Before asking the EPA to lead the effort to put out the fire, all local and state options had to be exhausted. ADEM requested the EPA perform air monitoring at the site using its advanced air monitoring units. A review of the data collected by the air monitoring justified further involvement by the EPA, and ADEM asked the EPA to take the lead in extinguishing the fire.
More information about the fire and the sequence of events is available on ADEM’s website at https://adem.alabama.gov/moody.cntADEM
For the neighbors who live next to the Environmental Landfill, breathing in smoke for months, the question now is how will this impact their health long-term?
“Fifteen years from now, am I going to have some weird cancer? Is my son going to have some weird cancer? Is this something we all have to worry about?” Reade told CBS 42.
Over the past two months, Jefferson County Department of Health Principle Air Pollution Monitor Jason Howanitz has been keeping track of the air quality, at the landfill and throughout the county.
“There can be all kinds of adverse health effects,” Howanitz explained. “Certainly we are concerned anytime there is an event that is blowing pollution back into the county.”
For those who don’t live near the landfill, Howanitz said levels of dangerous air particles (PM2.5) haven’t been significantly different than normal. He explained that even if people miles away were smelling the smoke, it doesn’t always mean there is a health threat there. For those close to the fire, however, it’s a different story.
“If you’re in the impact area, take those cautions and try to avoid prolonged smoke exposure,” Howanitz explained.
Without any data out yet about the health impacts, neighbors are left fearing the unknown.
“Just let us die,” Reade exclaimed. “That’s what they’re doing, that’s what the state’s doing.”
The EPA further explained the response efforts in a statement via email:
The EPA’s authorities vary based upon the facts of the situation, the type of facility, the environmental media affected, and the contaminants of concern at issue. Generally, states and local authorities, not the EPA, have the primary regulatory authority, including permitting and enforcement, over solid waste or vegetative waste landfills. In this case, based on the fire and other extenuating circumstances, ADEM requested EPA assistance to conduct air sampling to determine whether and what contaminants may be releasing to the air. Based on the results of the air sampling, and following ADEM and St. Clair County’s additional request to the EPA for response assistance, the EPA is using its emergency response authority under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) (otherwise known as the Superfund law) to both continue air sampling and to initiate response/cleanup activities at the Site as necessary to extinguish the fire and to abate ongoing emissions from the fire. The EPA’s response authority under Section 104 of CERCLA extends to releases or the substantial threat of a release of hazardous substances into the environment, or the release or threat of release of pollutants or contaminants into the environment which may present an imminent and substantial danger to the public health or welfare.
Below are documents provided by ADEM obtained by CBS 42 which detail the investigations coordinated from 2013 to 2022 regarding Environmental Landfill Inc.:
On the night of this Your Voice, Your Station broadcast, CBS 42’s Sherri Jackson was able to speak with Lynn Battle, Chief of External Affairs for ADEM, for additional information regarding the situation. You can watch the interview down below: