Landfill fire near Birmingham has been burning for almost a month

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — An underground fire has been raging at an environmental landfill near Birmingham for nearly a month, blanketing Alabama’s largest metro area with smoke.

Now state officials, local fire departments and county commissions are trying to decide the next step and who will cover the costs of putting it out, reported.

The fire started about a month ago at the Environmental Landfill, Inc., facility in St. Clair County, near the Birmingham suburbs of Moody and Trussville. James Mulkey, a fire inspector with the Moody Fire Department, said the department received its first call about the fire on Nov. 25 at approximately 7:45 a.m.

“The fire has entered the pile of debris, which is very large,” Mulkey said. “The actual size of the debris pile, we’ve heard estimates from 23 to 50 acres, and it’s multiple layers. In some places, this thing is 100-150 feet deep. We’re not sure because of how it was made. They would take put stuff in, put dirt on top of it and then put another layer in.”

Mulkey said the fire is now almost entirely underground.

“There is very little low-level activity above ground,” Mulkey said. “If you see a flame, it’s coming out of a crack or a crack in the ground and all the smoke is coming out of the ground.”

According to an Alabama Department of Environmental Management update published Thursday, extinguishing the fire is “critical” but will be difficult due to its location.

“It appears that unauthorized solid waste (ie, non-vegetative) was removed from the site following an ADEM action prior to the fire,” the update said.

The landfill is not regulated by ADEM because it is only meant to receive “green waste,” things like storm debris, leaves and limbs, and vegetative material. In reality, however, tires and other materials have been found at the dump in the middle of the fire.

ADEM External Affairs Chief Lynn Battle said the agency is investigating potential illegal dumping at the site.

“ADEM is aware that there is some unpermitted solid waste at this site. ADEM will determine the appropriate enforcement action upon completion of its investigation and review of relevant information,” Battle told via email.

Mulkey said he has seen tires in the storage area, but would not speculate on whether there is other unpermitted waste in the burning pile. Attempts to reach the landfill owners for comment via email and phone were unsuccessful.

ADEM has warned residents who live near the facility to consider limiting outdoor activities, installing high-efficiency filters in their heating and air conditioning systems, and sealing their home with caulking or other materials where outdoor air can leak in.

The department also said the smoke is likely to continue to be a problem for some time and “those with respiratory-related health conditions may consider temporarily relocating.”

The fire is burning in the unincorporated St. Clair County. The Moody Fire Department responded first to the fire because it was the closest but the area is not under their jurisdiction. It has acted with the Alabama Forestry Commission and the St. Clair County Commission to make a decision, but the agencies want to take more aggressive steps to put out the flames.

“All options are on the table,” Mulkey said. “Letting it burn out was an option we looked at, but we realized it’s a pretty deep (fire) and we really can’t give a timeline for it.”

There is also the question of who makes the final decision on an action plan and who pays for it.

“It’s unincorporated St. Clair County, so the county commission will have a lot of say,” Mulkey said. “In terms of regulatory authorities, and who is ultimately responsible and financially responsible for this matter, that is still a matter of some debate.”

ADEM primarily investigates the fire to see if violations occurred that could be prosecuted once the fire is out.

The Jefferson County Department of Health, which regulates air pollution in the Birmingham area, said it has received odor complaints, but the problem is outside its jurisdiction.

Michael Hansen, executive director of the Birmingham-area air quality group GASP, said the response from the state has been inadequate.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that government agencies are not doing more to protect people from this dangerous air pollution event,” Hansen said. “We need a multi-agency state and local response to this situation.”

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