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Black Friday: Lessons from the Alabama Landfill Fire

April 3rd, 2023 by Guest Communications

Written by: Dennis Pillion,

TNS) – The first report of the fire at the Environmental Landfill came to the Moody Fire Department just after 7 a.m. on Nov. 25, 2022, Black Friday.

The landfill isn’t actually in Moody. It’s located in unincorporated St. Clair County, about 15 miles northeast of Birmingham.

But since the Moody Fire Department was the closest organized fire department, they took the call and sent out the trucks. In doing so, they assumed control of the most confusing environmental crisis in recent Alabama memory.

For the 55 days, until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took over, there was a near-constant state of confusion over who was — or who should have been — in charge of fighting the fire, and who would pay to put it out.

As the fire raged on, nearby residents breathed in unhealthy levels of toxic smoke, which we now know contained harmful levels of chemicals, both natural and manmade. Their calls for help from state, local and federal officials went nowhere.

Fire rages on Black Friday

When the fire was first reported, the immediate concern was to keep it from spreading onto nearby homes and properties.

Crews from numerous local fire departments and the Alabama Forestry Commission worked to clear a fire break around the perimeter and prevent a bad situation from becoming much worse.

Residents reported seeing flames shooting high into the sky that first night.

ADEM inspection photos from before the fire show piles of dead trees, loosely covered, towering dozens of feet high. Longtime residents say the area was a natural ravine before the landfill began to fill the massive hole in the earth.

James Mulkey, an inspector at the Moody Fire Department told the waste pile was estimated to be 100 to 150 feet deep in places.

That means once the blaze started, the fire had plenty of fuel to keep burning for a long time.

State Forester Rick Oates, head of the Forestry Commission, said this month that the landfill fire was very different from the forest fires his agency typically handles.

“The Alabama Forestry Commission doesn’t fight fires in the same manner that a structural firefighter battling a house fire would do,” Oates said. “Our role in fighting fire is to contain that fire. We basically remove the fuel source by plowing firebreaks around the fire and prevent the fire from spreading.

“It stays contained in an area, and then it’ll burn itself out.”

That tactic can be successful on forest fires, but blazes in a 150-foot deep landfill near residential neighborhoods are a different story.

Billowing smoke clouds

State and local fire crews were able to get the fire contained within the first several days, but that proved to be the limit of their abilities and experience.

“Unfortunately, our firefighting tactics don’t allow us to put the fire out,” Oates said this month. “We can’t smother it with water or dirt or anything like that. Our role is to just contain it and let it burn out.”

Once the initial blaze was contained, the fire retreated mostly underground, where it burned for months and still burns now. The smoke continued to blanket the nearby communities of Moody and Trussville. Depending on which way the wind blew, people 15 miles away in downtown Birmingham could smell the burning fumes.

Stan Batemon, St. Clair County Commission chairman, said the area near the fire reminded him of Yellowstone National Park, with smoke hissing and spewing from cracks in the ground.

Residents near the fire site began to complain of smoke-related illnesses, including difficulty breathing, coughing, and red, itchy eyes. They grew increasingly disappointed in the lack of help from state and local governments.

ADEM released a statement on Dec. 22, saying the smoke was “similar to that associated with a forest fire,” but added that residents may want to limit time outdoors, consider purchasing high-efficiency air filters and seal off air gaps in their homes.

Some residents — those who could afford it — left their homes to escape the smoke.

Pastor and former firefighter Richard Harp checked his family into an AirBNB at his own expense.

Margaret Armstrong and her granddaughter Brice hunkered down and tried to limit their exposure.

“The smell follows me wherever I go,” Brice Armstrong said, adding that people sometimes ask if she started smoking cigarettes because of the odor.

Jennifer Lewis and her family purchased multiple air filters for their home less than a mile from the fire.

Others resorted to more inventive methods to keep their air clean, creating their own air purifiers with a box fan and filters made for home HVAC systems.

Robin Andrews, of the nearby Carrington Lakes subdivision sealed her windows and doors with painters’ tape to keep the smoke out and added a Shark brand air purifier in her home. She said before she taped off her windows, and she sometimes had to cover her face to get to sleep at night.

Birmingham -based environmental group GASP installed air monitors at private homes and buildings like churches throughout the area. A web site allowed users to see in real time where smoke from the fire was the worst.

GASP executive director Michael Hansen said the state failed in its responsibilities to residents.

“State and local agencies spent weeks pointing fingers at one another while people suffered,” Hansen said. “ADEM issued a couple of statements, but they passed the buck elsewhere and offered no real guidance to a confused public looking for answers.”

A vacuum of responsibility

As homeowners coped with the smoke-laden air coming into their homes, state and local agencies argued over who had the authority and responsibility to do something about the fire.

In its Dec. 22 statement, ADEM said the Moody Fire Department was “acting as the lead responder and providing regular updates on its Facebook page.”

Mulkey, with the Moody Fire Department, said there was still some confusion about who was in charge.

“As for regulatory agencies, and who’s ultimately responsible and financially responsible for this thing, that’s still a subject of some debate,” Mulkey told on Dec. 20.

On Dec. 29, as public pressure mounted, ADEM said it was “assisting the St. Clair County Commission, the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency and the Moody Fire Department in an advisory capacity.”

“The County Commission has primary responsibility for dealing with the fire, and ADEM has connected the commission with private companies that have expertise in dealing with underground fires,” ADEM said.

St. Clair County Commissioners said that was news to them.

The commission called an emergency meeting for Jan. 3 and unanimously passed a resolution to “declare the existence of emergency conditions.”

They were looking for help. The resolution urged Gov. Kay Ivey to declare a state of emergency and asked the state or federal government for help in putting out the fire, a job Batemon said could cost about $2 million.

“In order to effectively and correctly address this situation, it will be incumbent upon the state of Alabama and/or the federal government to provide funds necessary to address this particular emergency,” County Attorney James Hill said. “These funds are going to need to come from a place other than our local governments.”

Outside contractor needed, but who hires them?

By then it was clear that no one in the state had the expertise or capability to put out the underground fire, and that someone would have to hire an outside contractor.

“Extinguishing the fire will be difficult because it is burning mostly underground, where water cannot reach it,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said in the Dec. 29 news release. “It also poses extreme hazards to firefighters due to the risks of cave-ins and flare-ups. Plus, the volume of vegetative matter that has been disposed of at the site over the years means there’s an abundance of fuel for the fire.

“That’s why engaging parties with knowledge and experience in fighting these types of fires, from both an effectiveness and safety standpoint, is critical.”

On Jan. 10, the St. Clair County Commission said that it had requested bids from contractors to put out the blaze and was considering five or six different options. Mulkey and St. Clair County Engineer Dan Dahlke led that process.

However, they believed they were only reviewing the bids to make recommendations to the state about which ones to consider.

“We don’t think the county is going to be the one selecting the company,” Batemon said Jan. 10. “We think it’ll be selected by somebody either on the state or the federal level to put this fire out.”

The feds take over

More than two weeks after the St. Clair County Commission formally pleaded for assistance, Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency and announced that the EPA would take over.

“By authorizing the EPA to respond to this fire, we are ensuring it will be addressed in the fastest and safest way possible,” Ivey said in a news release on Jan. 18.

LeFleur said in a separate release that EPA was in the best position to extinguish the fire since it had contractors on retainer with experience handling this kind of fire.

“And we have entered into an arrangement with the EPA to make that happen,” LeFleur said.

But why did it take so long? Many criticized ADEM and the state for not reaching out to the EPA sooner.

LeFleur said ADEM had reached out to the EPA in December, but the federal agency declined to get involved because it does not regulate green waste landfills.

“That’s a state function,” EPA on-scene coordinator Terry Stilman told after the agency had arrived to put out the fire.

Although ADEM found improper waste at the Environmental Landfill multiple times in the years before the fire, the department maintained that it did not have the authority to regulate a green waste landfill.

So LeFleur said ADEM tried a different tactic in January, requesting that the EPA provide air monitoring equipment at the site. The EPA has specialized air monitors that the state does not have, LeFleur said.

The EPA took air samples on Jan. 6 and found harmful chemicals in the smoke, including known carcinogens and man-made chemicals not typically present in forest fires.

The levels exceeded EPA limits for human safety and allowed the federal agency to get involved. EPA personnel arrived at the landfill on Jan. 19.

What’s in the water?

Concerns about smoke and air pollution brought the EPA to the fire scene. But once the agency took over, concerns shifted to the waters around the area.

On Feb. 4, ADEM officials said that water sampling upstream and downstream of the fire showed “no discernible impact,” to water quality from the fire.

However, Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler disagrees.

Butler told ADEM took water samples from locations well removed from the fire, meaning they were unlikely to show the worst impacts.

“With ADEM’s promise that they’re going to investigate what is buried at the landfill, it makes no sense to us that they would start sampling far away and work back toward the landfill,” Butler said. “It seems like the much more common-sense approach would be to sample from the landfill out, and to this point, we haven’t seen any samples that they have published directly from the discharge of the landfill.”

Butler said water samples he took closer to the fire site, showed levels of PFAS – man-made so-called forever chemicals – that were thousands of times higher than EPA limits for safe drinking water.

On. Feb. 15, ADEM released a strongly worded statement criticizing Cahaba Riverkeeper for publishing those results, arguing that since PFAS chemicals are widely present in the environment the sampling was unnecessary.

“Measuring the level of PFAS at the Moody fire site serves no purpose,” LeFleur said in the news release.

LeFleur then highlighted widespread PFAS sampling efforts across the state, and ADEM’s efforts to require drinking water providers in the state to test for PFAS.

“It’s disappointing that the Cahaba Riverkeeper has resorted to trying to scare people about PFAS for its political purposes, since they are keenly aware of the prevalence of PFAS in the state, like in the rest of the nation, and the efforts to rid it from our drinking water systems,” LeFleur said.

LeFleur had previously said there was “no reason to believe” that there was anything in the waste pile other than non-regulated green waste.

“The results that we published say to us that there is stuff buried in that landfill that is not trees,” Butler said. “ADEM has kind of attempted to refute those results by saying PFAS is everywhere. But while it is everywhere, it is in a much higher concentration coming out of that landfill than it is other places.

“We believe that the best way to deal with that is to catch it at the landfill instead of letting it get into Big Black Creek and the Cahaba River.”

Butler said he was disappointed in the ADEM response to his group’s water samples.

“For nearly two months, [LeFleur] told the residents in the area that they had nothing to worry about, that this was just a wood fire,” Butler said. “Not until the EPA started doing air monitoring did the true risk to the people in the area become clear.”

Butler said that ADEM’s statements did not address the fears of the surrounding community.

“For two months, they basically let it burn and told people to stay inside and limit their exposure to the smoke,” Butler said. “If anybody has done anything to inspire fear, it’s ADEM by repeatedly mischaracterizing the type of fire that they were dealing with.”

What’s next?

Now, as the EPA winds down its operations to smother the fire area in dirt to put out the fire, the focus shifts to the future and how the state can be better prepared for any future episodes like this one.

LeFleur said the issue of regulating green waste landfills will be addressed by the working group, but regulating green waste disposal would require changes in legislation.

Bell, the state senator, said he hopes the group will look at how the state can help residents who are impacted by situations like the Moody fire.

“We’ve got to do a better job, and I hope with this group together, that we can do a better job and address those issues,” Bell said.

Oates, the state forester who is part of the ADEM working group, said he has several points for the group to consider.

“I hope the study group is going to work on what are the strategies for controlling, not only controlling but extinguishing, fires like this? Who has responsibility in this situation? And what can be done to prevent them in the future?”

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

This article appeared on Emergency Management News and has been shared with consent:

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