A pile of logs and other trash lying on bare dirt, with smoke rising off of it. Construction equipment to move dirt on top of the fire is visible in the background.

What to know about the Moody landfill fire

EPA cleanup underway, but air quality concerns continue

by Sydney Cromwell

At a landfill in St. Clair County, a fire has been burning since Nov. 25. The smoke from the site has driven many nearby residents from their homes. On Jan. 18, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the efforts to extinguish the fire.

Southern Science spoke with the EPA, ADEM and Cahaba Riverkeeper to get an update on what’s happening at the site, air pollution concerns, a timeline for putting out the fire and what happens after it’s extinguished.

How did we get here?

The origin of the fire is unknown, and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) won’t begin investigating the cause until the fire is extinguished.

The Moody Fire Department was first alerted to the fire at the Environmental Landfill, Inc., site on Nov. 25. The fire department and Alabama Forestry Commission built fire breaks at the site and attempted to control the fire, but were unsuccessful.

Environmental Landfill is considered a “green waste” site, meaning that it can only be used to dispose of organic materials like tree branches and grass clippings. However, ADEM inspection reports noted unlawful waste — such as tires, metal, construction materials, asphalt, shingles, appliances and other trash — had been found there in 2013, 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Similar materials have been found on-site again and are part of the current fire.

Because the fire is burning under layers of waste, it is difficult to know its full extent. The blaze is also causing the ground to be unstable and collapse as the material beneath it burns.

These difficult conditions led ADEM to ask the EPA for assistance, and the federal agency’s Superfund Technical Assessment and Response Team conducted air testing around the fire site on Jan. 6-7. Those tests found four chemicals at the landfill site and two chemicals at nearby residences that exceeded the federal removal levels.

The chemicals included:

  • 1,3-butadiene, used to create synthetic rubbers and certain plastics
  • acetonitrile, which is used in manufacturing a variety of products, including certain fibers, plastics, lithium batteries and pharmaceuticals
  • benzene, which is often produced by wood fires as well as certain fuels and household products
  • trichloroethene, which is used in products like degreasers and spot removers.

Breathing in unsafe amounts of all four of these chemicals can cause dizziness, confusion, nausea, headaches and irritation of the eyes, nose and lungs. Trichloroethene and 1,3-butadiene are known to cause cancer with high enough exposure.

The Greater Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP) did its own air sampling at two locations on Jan. 19, and its results were in agreement with the EPA’s testing, Executive Director Michael Hansen said.

The EPA decided that an emergency response was needed based on these samples.

On Jan. 18, Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency, and the EPA arrived to start putting out the fire, more than 50 days after it was first reported.

How is the smoke affecting people?

Residents near the landfill have reported respiratory issues like asthma attacks, headaches and scratchy throats. Some have temporarily moved out of their homes until the fire is extinguished.

The smoke and smell of burning has traveled miles across Jefferson County.

Cahaba Riverkeeper David Butler said the state’s delay between the first report of the fire and the request for federal help was “unacceptable.” If air monitoring had begun earlier, he said, the EPA might have been called in sooner.

“I mean, they knew from late November that they weren’t going to be able to extinguish the fire without some help, and they waited until January until they requested help,” he said. “… So people had to breathe toxic smoke for six weeks before they did any air monitoring.”

Since Jan. 19, the EPA has done daily air testing from four monitoring stations and a mobile sampling unit that can move in response to changing wind and weather patterns. The initial samples showed elevated amounts of small particles in the air, which cause haze and can be a health risk when inhaled, according to the EPA.

“We still have a long way to go, but there’s a lot less open flame and a lot less smoke.”

Terry Stilman, EPA on-site coordinator

The smoke and air pollution are the primary concern while the fire is ongoing, but David Butler of Cahaba Riverkeeper said pollution of nearby groundwater is also a concern. Since the landfill was not intended to hold waste materials besides “green waste,” it does not have a liner or other protections intended to keep toxic materials from leaking.

ADEM is doing water testing in a stream near the site every three weeks until the fire is put out, Chief of External Affairs Lynn Battle said, and so far the tests reported “no indications of significant impact to water quality.”

However, Cahaba Riverkeeper has also tested runoff water from the site on three occasions since the fire began.

“Each time, we detected chemicals that were not consistent with a wood fire,” Butler said, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are found in many household and office products.

The riverkeeper’s most recent testing was done after the EPA began its cleanup work, and Butler said this time they included testing for 23 different metals. Ten of them were found in the sampling results.

“We weren’t sure what all might be buried there, so we weren’t sure what all to test for,” he said.

Once the fire is put out, Butler said he wants to do more water testing at the landfill.

Why was there unlawful waste dumping at this site?

ADEM regulations do not address any oversight of “green waste” landfills unless a complaint is made.

In its 2016-2018 and 2018-2020 biennial reports, ADEM said that it “may evaluate the management of green waste.”

“That does not mean ADEM has authority to manage those waste materials, only that ADEM may consider looking into it. ADEM has not taken any action to manage green waste,” Battle said via email.

There is no mention of green waste in the 2020-2022 report.

ADEM has investigated multiple complaints against Environmental Landfill since 2013. Each time that inspectors found unlawful materials at the site, the owners were required to provide a plan to clean up the waste and prevent it from happening again.

Environmental Landfill did clean up telephone poles, construction debris and other waste after some of these inspections, according to ADEM documentation, and the landfill also put up a new sign stating what materials it could and couldn’t accept. However, inspectors also found that the landfill sometimes tried to hide unauthorized waste by burying it rather than remove it.

Several ADEM inspectors also noted that the conditions at the site were a fire hazard in reports dating back to 2013.

In an August 2022 follow-up report — the last filed by ADEM before the fire started — the inspector noted that the property owner was working on an 18-month remediation plan, meant to clean up the construction materials that had been buried. Some unlawful materials had been removed at that time.

“Follow-up inspections by ADEM confirmed the operator took remedial steps regarding the regulated wastes,” Battle said via email. “ADEM also discussed with the property owner the need to segregate regulated wastes on site until the wastes could be removed and to secure proper disposal of the wastes after removal.”

However, the EPA and ADEM have uncovered more of these materials while fighting the fire.

Butler said this fire has put a spotlight on some of the gaps in state regulations.

“I think it’s become obvious that these sites unmonitored create a tremendous hazard since they’re not regulated,” he said.

He also said ADEM doesn’t do enough to follow up on violations and make sure they’re taken care of. Prior to the August 2022 inspection, ADEM had last visited the landfill site in December 2020 and documented only four email exchanges with Environmental Landfill about its clean-up work between those visits.

“ADEM will go out and do an inspection but then not follow up or follow through on what they asked the responsible party to do, and that was the case here,” Butler said.

What is the EPA doing to extinguish the fire?

Since arriving at the Moody landfill site on Jan. 19, the EPA has been bringing in fill dirt to cover the fire, in an attempt to smother it.

On-site coordinator Terry Stilman said that the EPA’s team of around 15 people had brought in an estimated 5,000 cubic yards of fill dirt as of the end of January. They also occasionally spray water on the site as a way to control smoke emissions.

This technique to “cap” the fire seems to be working.

“We still have a long way to go, but there’s a lot less open flame and a lot less smoke,” Stilman said.

A large pile of smoking black soil takes up most of the image. A machine picks up what looks like a metal barrel on the left side of the pile, and a tractor is on top covering the pile with dirt to smother the fire.
EPA crews work to contain and cover the fire at the Environmental Landfill site. Photo courtesy of the EPA.

The eastern portion of the landfill is mostly capped, but the western portion has been most affected and will take longer to extinguish, according to James Pinkney, the acting chief of public and governmental affairs for EPA Region 4, which includes Alabama.

Stilman said the major hurdle in this process is trucking enough quantities of fill dirt into the site.

However, he expected that “noticeable smoke” would no longer be leaving the landfill site by the end of February or early March.

“We should be in a good position related to off-site impacts within 30 days,” Stilman said.

However, the EPA will still have more work to do in order to make sure the ground is stable and there is enough cover dirt to permanently snuff out the fire. That could take an additional 30 days, he estimated.

After that point, the EPA will hand the site back over to state officials.

While extinguishing the fire will remove the most urgent risks, Butler said covering these pollutants without removing them means that the problems for soil and water won’t be resolved.

“Our concern at this point is what the long-term remediation plan for the site is,” he said. “… At this point they have no plan to excavate the material that’s the source of the pollution.”

Should I be concerned about air quality?

The EPA’s daily air samples are showing some small particles are still being put in the air by the smoke, though it has decreased as the fire suppression work has continued. 

“We’re still concerned about the amount of contamination emanating from the landfill,” Stilman said.

From Jan. 25 to Feb. 3, none of the EPA’s monitoring stations reported unsafe levels, except one station on Jan. 27.

But the numbers spiked again beginning on Feb. 4, with all four stations reporting unhealthy levels of small particles in the air. The results stayed elevated through Feb. 6, but receded again on Feb. 7, according to the EPA’s reports. Pinkney said these temporary spikes can happen as the work at the landfill can cause small disturbances in the burning areas.

The EPA is also doing air testing for benzenes. Stilman said the final results of the benzene sampling take an extra week or two to receive from the laboratory. However, the EPA receives a draft version while waiting for final results, so it can respond to any pollution issues shown in the sampling.

The smoke could still cause health impacts for people with sensitivities or who live especially close to the source. ADEM has posted a list of recommendations for those at risk to limit the possible harm.

The EPA will continue its air monitoring while working on extinguishing the fire.

“We’ll do air monitoring throughout the life of this project, meaning when we’re finished or at least have a good cap and we’re doing wrap-up work,” Stilman said.

Who will pay for the fire cleanup costs?

The EPA is paying for the fire extinguishing efforts out of its regional emergency response funds.

The current estimated budget is a little over $1.5 million. Stilman said the EPA has a buffer for overages up to $2.8 million, but he doesn’t expect costs to reach that figure.

“We don’t come in with an open checkbook,” he said.

After the fire is put out, Stilman said the EPA can attempt to recover those costs through penalties against the responsible party.

“EPA always pursues enforcement actions when we can” as part of the Superfund law, Stilman said.

A barren dirt slope with small pockets of smoke rising from it, and piles of rocks or other waste in the background. A backhoe and truck full of dirt are seen on the slope.
The Environmental Landfill site is being covered with fill dirt and graded, in an attempt to smother the fire. Photo courtesy of the EPA.

As part of its investigation, ADEM on Jan. 18 asked Environmental Landfill to provide documentation of the unauthorized waste it had accepted. The request had a 15-day deadline, but Battle said the owners have asked for a 30-day extension “due to the significant volume of information that was requested of them.”

Additionally, a group of nearby homeowners have filed a class-action lawsuit against Environmental Landfill and Scott Russell Management Trust, which owns the property. 

According to their Dec. 21 complaint filing, the homeowners have had health issues and property damage from the smoke caused by the landfill fire, which they consider a public nuisance to the area. They allege the landfill owners were negligent and reckless in operating a landfill that accepted unlawful materials and did not adequately address fire hazards.

In addition to compensation for damages, the lawsuit asks for an injunction to stop the operation of an illegal dump at the Environmental Landfill property.

On Jan. 24, the management trust responded with a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, on the basis that it did not operate the landfill business on the property and it had not violated any “known legal duty” in its management of the site. The motion also notes that the cause of the fire hasn’t been found.

The law firm for the homeowners, Heninger Garrison Davis, responded the following day to rebut those claims, in particular stating that the management trust does indeed have a duty in making sure laws and regulations are followed on its property. They also state that the fire was a “foreseeable” outcome of the negligence of the landfill and property owners.

Mark Ekonen, one of the attorneys for the homeowners, said the judge in the circuit court of St. Clair County has set a status conference on Feb. 13, which will be the first time the plaintiffs and defendants will be together to discuss the case.

How do we prevent this situation from happening again?

Butler hopes the effects of the fire and public attention will motivate changes in how “green waste” landfills are regulated and how the state handles repeat violators.

Before they first heard about the fire, Cahaba Riverkeeper wasn’t even aware of the site’s existence, Butler said, and that’s part of the problem. Other green waste landfills around the state are operating with almost no oversight as to whether they’re actually following the rules.

“These situations are kind of what we have complained about. We have been concerned about ADEM’s poor enforcement track record.”

David Butler, Cahaba Riverkeeper

Battle said ADEM is currently focused on managing the fire and the pollution from it, but the agency expects to have “conversations about other possible ways to prevent this situation from repeating.”

“The fire has shown limitations in the ability and authority of state and local governments to respond to incidents that involve activities that are not regulated but may pose a public risk,” Battle said via email. “ADEM is looking at possibly engaging other entities, including other governmental agencies, about possible ways to deal with such situations.”

There are other landfills and hazardous waste sites that Butler said are not monitored well enough, even though they fall under ADEM regulation.

Not far from the Environmental Landfill fire, for instance, Butler said a now-closed business has left thousands of gallons of old gas and oil in containers, which have been slowly deteriorating since 2013. He said there are oil stains on the ground, and the property is “a fire hazard all on its own.”

“There’s clearly signs that the metal barrels, drums, are leaking,” Butler said. “… We don’t even know what all is in it.”

From 2018 to 2021, ADEM has sent a number of letters to the property because the owners failed to submit state-required reports to monitor any toxic materials leaving the site. Many of these were returned to sender.

In October 2019, an inspector attempted to access the site, but the gate was locked and the phone number disconnected.

For more than a year, ADEM did not document any attempts to contact the owners or inspect the property. Finally, following another complaint, ADEM visited the site on Jan. 25 and 27 of this year and found leaking oil and fuel containers.

Butler said the Cahaba Riverkeeper has complained about ADEM’s approach to regulation for years to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission, with few results. Environmental groups in Alabama have said for a long time that ADEM prioritizes the interests of business over environmental protection.

“These situations are kind of what we have complained about. We have been concerned about ADEM’s poor enforcement track record,” he said.

How can I keep up-to-date with the progress on extinguishing the fire?

The EPA posts daily reports of its air sampling around the landfill on its website. Its benzene sampling results are delayed by a week or so due to the laboratory’s processes, but these results will be posted at the same place.

There is also a special EPA site that tracks the progress of covering the fire with fill dirt and current pollution data from each monitoring station.

GASP has its own air sensors in the area, and current conditions can be found on the GASP website.

Water quality testing results and other documents related to the fire can be found on ADEM’s eFile website, using the name “Environmental Landfill Inc” or Master ID 32348.

Main article image of the Environmental Inc. landfill fire courtesy of the EPA’s site profile.

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