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Alabama landfill fire raises questions about how landfills are regulated

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know that smell when you're passing by and somebody is burning trash in their backyard? I can remember the first time I ever smelled it. It's memorable. And apparently, it happens on a giant scale at landfills. Thousands of landfills catch fire across the United States every year. And some of those fires last days. Some of those fires last weeks. And in Alabama, one landfill has been burning for more than three months. Mary Scott Hogan of member station WBHM checked in with the neighbors.

MARY SCOTT HODGIN, BYLINE: Daniel Cash was out of town when the private landfill first caught fire.

DANIEL CASH: My mom had called. She said that there was a fire. I said, well, hopefully everything's all right. We're heading back there now.

HODGIN: It was right after Thanksgiving. Cash and his fiance drove towards their mobile home in St. Clair County, a wooded residential area north of Birmingham. As they crested the hill above their home, they saw flames.

CASH: When I come looking up that way, it was such a big area on fire up there. And there was so much smoke and what - it looked like a sunset from the colors of the fire.

HODGIN: It's not yet known how the fire started, but the smoke has continued for months.

KRISSY HARMON: It doesn't smell like a wood-burning fire at all.

HODGIN: Krissy Harmon lives in a lake house less than a half a mile from the landfill. She's taped up all the windows to try to keep the acidic fumes out.

HARMON: It makes me feel like my throat is on fire at times - like, if you've ever had strep, and it feels like razorblades cutting.

HODGIN: Residents say the smoke has caused headaches, nosebleeds, congestion and coughs. State and local officials have advised people to relocate if necessary. That option is off the table for many residents. Some don't have the resources to move. Others, like Harmon, can't just leave.

HARMON: We have a disabled child. We can't really take him just anywhere.

HODGIN: The burning landfill was supposed to only accept green waste, like trees and leaves. But state inspection reports show it contains unauthorized material, like rubber tires and scrap metal. The privately owned site is not regulated because Alabama doesn't regulate green waste. The state only inspected the landfill when complaints were filed. Matthew Huyser is an on-scene coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency. He says they received reports about the fire soon after it started burning.

MATTHEW HUYSER: And throughout all of those reports, we were in contact and communication with the state of Alabama.

HODGIN: It wasn't until January that Alabama asked the EPA to conduct air sampling. That's when the agency found heightened levels of toxic chemicals and stepped in to extinguish the fire. Huyser says the agency frequently responds to these kinds of incidents.

HUYSER: And the team that we have out there is extremely experienced in a fire in a landfill of this nature.

HODGIN: We reached out to the operator of the landfill. They declined to comment for this story. The EPA plans to have the fire out by the end of March. Nationwide, the agency says it doesn't track data on landfill fires, but according to the U.S. Fire Administration, there are tens of thousands of fires every year at landfills, dumpsters and trash compactors. Robert Percival is an environmental law professor at the University of Maryland. He says federal regulations around landfills are limited and are mostly concerned with hazardous waste. He says the EPA leaves it up to state and local authorities to enact more rules.

ROBERT PERCIVAL: Well, it's kind of the story of environmental law generally. We react when there's a problem.

HODGIN: In recent years, some states have elected to tighten their regulations. Many residents and advocates in Alabama hope the state follows suit.

(CROSSTALK)

HODGIN: During a regulatory commission meeting in February, local attorney David Ludder urged Alabama officials to adopt more oversight of green waste.

DAVID LUDDER: There are probably hundreds of these landfills in Alabama that are not being regulated and that have the potential to become environmental disasters, just like the one in St. Clair County.

HODGIN: The director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Lance LeFleur, wouldn't say whether or not he supports adding regulation. He says the state doesn't know how many similar sites might exist.

LANCE LEFLEUR: Well, since they're not regulated, we don't really have a way to give account of those.

HODGIN: Residents like Krissy Harmon say that answer isn't good enough.

HARMON: If we're going to have a government agency that regulates landfills, then they probably should regulate landfills.

HODGIN: Harmon says air quality has improved in recent weeks, but it depends on wind conditions. She continues to experience health effects, like headaches and a sore throat. She and many residents will always worry about possible long-term impacts. For NPR News, I'm Mary Scott Hodgin in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Scott Hodgin