ADEM Director Lance LeFleur detailed the department’s response to an underground landfill fire in Moody in a statement to the Environmental Management Commission at its meeting Friday.
In the statement, LeFleur said ADEM did what it could from the moment the fire was reported but lacked the expertise to combat the unique situation.
“From the moment the fire was reported to us, ADEM has been actively involved in efforts to extinguish the fire,” LeFleur said. “ADEM immediately engaged with the Moody Fire Department, the Alabama Forestry Commission, the St. Clair County Commission, the State Emergency Management Agency, the St. Clair County Emergency Management Agency and others. Unfortunately, none of us has the resources or ability to extinguish an underground fire of this nature.”
And the EPA initially couldn’t step in, LeFleur said, because the federal agency doesn’t have authority to take action on vegetative materials.
“ADEM persisted, however, and asked the EPA to deploy its advanced air monitoring units to clearly determine the level of risk that smoke from the fire posed to public health,” LeFleur said. “The EPA agreed, and its tests found the presence of four chemicals above the accepted minimal risk level on the fire site itself and two of the chemicals above the accepted minimal risk level offsite at a single home about 300 feet from the fire.
“As unwelcome as that finding was, it did allow ADEM to then ask the EPA to take the lead in extinguishing the fire.”
Although the landfill is designated for vegetative materials only, unauthorized materials have been found at the landfill in the past.
Advocates at the meeting said the disaster has exposed gaps in ADEM’s regulatory authority.
“The Moody landfill fire is actually a great highlight to see where there are a lot of gaps in ADEM’s execution. … I think for there to be gaps in the law is oversight on the commission’s part and I think the residents are suffering,” said Sidni Elise Smith, a staff attorney of the Greater-Birmingham Alliance to Stop Pollution (GASP).
LeFleur also said the situation revealed issues with the department’s ability to respond.
“It exposed shortcomings in the ability and authority of state and local governments to respond to situations that are outside the scope of regulated activities but nonetheless pose risks to the public. We are in talks with representatives of county governments and other agencies about ways to close these gaps.
“Our goal, as always, is to protect the health and safety of our citizens and the environment, and to make sure we have the tools and authority to do so. We must work together and do all we can to ensure an incident like this does not happen again.”