The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is stepping in to put out the underground fire in St. Clair County at the request of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
The EPA will determine the most appropriate method to extinguish the fire, hire a contractor from its list of qualified vendors to perform the work, and oversee the process.
“Neither ADEM nor the county has the experience or expertise to put out a fire of this nature,” ADEM Director Lance LeFleur said. “The EPA utilizes contractors with experience and knowledge to do this type of work. ADEM and state and local officials have concluded the most effective and safe way to extinguish the fire is for the EPA to lead the effort, and we have entered into an arrangement with the EPA to make that happen.”
Gov. Kay Ivey issued a limited state of emergency Wednesday to give officials more flexibility in fighting the fire.
“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. “It is imperative that this situation be solved and solved right for the sake of the folks in Moody and all people affected by this fire. I am pleased at this next step, and to ensure we are doing everything possible from the state level, I am also issuing a limited state of emergency for St. Clair County to give local officials another layer of support as they deal with this fire.”
From the beginning of the fire, ADEM has made extinguishing it a top priority. But the underground fire poses extreme hazards to firefighters and other responders due to the risks of cave-ins and flare-ups, and the volume of vegetative matter that has been buried at the site over the years. ADEM has no staff or vendors it works with that can handle this type of fire.
However, LeFleur said ADEM has taken numerous steps to assist local leaders, including putting the St. Clair County Commission in contact with companies with experience in putting out underground fires.
St. Clair County officials, who have been evaluating proposals from the companies, agreed this week that turning over the lead for extinguishing the fire to the EPA is the best option given its experience resolving these types of issues.
“We stand ready to assist the EPA in whatever manner we can,” County Commission President Stan Batemon said. “The most important thing is putting the fire out as fast as possible and bringing relief to residents in communities being affected by the smoke. The county is limited in what it can do. The EPA is clearly in the best position with its knowhow and resources to handle the fire. We believe this is a major step forward in identifying the best solution and taking action.”
At ADEM’s request, the EPA has performed air testing at and the near the site. In addition, ADEM is doing water testing in nearby streams to determine possible impacts from runoff from the fire site. It is not known at this point how long it will take to put out the fire, or who ultimately will be responsible for paying the EPA’s costs. The EPA is expected to seek recovery costs from the private operator of the site.
Once the fire is out, ADEM said appropriate enforcement actions will be taken against the operator, which could involve penalties for impacts to air quality and open burning violations.