Officials Move To Regulate Outdoor Burning

11/16/09 7:50AM David Sommerstein
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David Sommerstein
(Host) For generations, rural residents of the Northeast burned everything from leaves and brush to garbage and tires to save on trash pickup.

As of this fall, all states in the region are regulating open burning - not only to prevent wildfires, but to keep toxic smoke from polluting the region's air.

As part of a collaboration with Northeast public radio stations, North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports that convincing people to obey the law is an ongoing effort.

(Sommerstein) Larry Lago is burning down an old wood shed outside his mother's house in northern New York state. A cardboard barrel and some branches are piled on top.

(Lago) "It costs so much. It would cost a lot to get rid of it in a landfill. If you're able to burn it, it's best to burn it. But they're making things so tough, you can't do that."

(Sommerstein) Lago says he got the OK from the local fire department. But he still has the sheepish grin of someone who knows he's skirting the law.

In many places, burn piles and burn barrels are a rural tradition.

(Soper) "I still burn my papers. That's all I burn is papers. I do not burn trash."

(Sommerstein) Not far from Lago, Phil Soper says he's not about to give it up. He's burned stuff at his hunting cabin for as long as he can remember.

(Soper) "And it's back in the woods about a mile and we have two burnin' barrels there and it's all contained. We never burn when it's dry. We always make sure we got water with us when we do burn. And we stay there until the fire's out."

(Sommerstein) But researchers have learned that open burning is not benign. Burn piles combust at low temperatures. They release particles into the air that can cause asthma. Much of the paper in today's waste stream contains toxic inks, glues, or coatings. Burning plastics is the worst.

David Carpenter is a public health researcher at SUNY Albany. He says backyard burning produces a noxious cloud of toxic chemicals, including dioxin. It can spread far beyond the burn pile itself.

(Carpenter) "It goes into the air. It deposits on the garden vegetables. It deposits on the grass that the cows eat. It gets into our food supply. Dioxin causes cancer and we must get dioxin out of the food supply."

(Sommerstein) The Environmental Protection Agency says backyard trash burning is the single biggest source of dioxin emissions in the country.

New York recently joined the rest of the Northeast in banning trash burning. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and now New York also prohibit burning leaves. Many states require a permit even to torch brush and downed trees.

But spreading the word is an ongoing effort. New Hampshire produced these public service announcements.

(Ad) "You wouldn't dump your trash on your neighbor's lawn. So why would you put it in your neighbor's air?"

(Sommerstein) Vermont outlawed trash burning 16 years ago. But the state still levies 500 to 10,000 dollar fines to violators. Gary Kessler directs environmental compliance in Vermont.

(Kessler) "We've prosecuted cases for people who illegally burn a few tires that they have sitting around or they save their plastic milk bottles and plastic detergent bottles that, they're actually recyclable and they burn them."

(Sommerstein) The biggest complaint about the burning restrictions is cost. Trash pickup can be expensive. Phil Soper, the guy who burns paper at his hunting camp, says the burn bans just create other problems.

(Soper) "The landfill, or wherever they're taking it is going to be so full in a year's time, they will have to do something different. It's gonna cost us taxpayers big, big money."

(Sommerstein) Even so, environmental officials say any waste that's not burned is pollution kept out of everyone's air.

For VPR News, I'm David Sommerstein.

(Host) Northeast Environmental coverage is part of NPR's Local News Initiative. It is funded, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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