EPA takes charge of Alabama landfill fire after finding carcinogens in air samples

The US Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Alabama this week and took charge of battling a landfill fire north of Birmingham after finding evidence of two chemicals that are known to cause cancer.

“Today, we are putting boots on the ground to address the fire so that all impacted can breathe a sigh of relief,” EPA Region 4 Administrator Daniel Blackman said in a news release Thursday.

EPA officials say they agreed to take over after air samples near the site showed elevated levels of benzene and trichloroethylene, or TCE.

“Based on the results of that data, it was clear that further action was necessary,” Blackman said.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, long-term exposure to benzene can cause leukemia, and there is strong evidence that trichlorethylene can cause kidney cancer as well as other forms of cancer. Both chemicals are considered to be human carcinogens.

The EPA installed air monitors at the site during the first week of January at the request of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Those air monitors were more sophisticated than sensors that only measure particulate matter, and the samples had to be analyzed in a laboratory. Those results were made available Wednesday.

“EPA’s first priority is to ensure the well-being of the residents,” said Blackman. “The community wants to see action and are understandably concerned about the landfill fire’s impact on their health, safety and quality of life.”

EPA is on the scene

According to the Agency, two federal on-scene coordinators have been appointed and are on the scene now with other EPA personnel.

One of them, Terry Stilman, told AL.com that the sample results were the main reason the EPA stepped in.

“The levels of benzene and trichloroethylene, TCE, in the air samples were above our risk-based numbers,” Stilman said. “We’ve established risk based numbers for air, and the levels we found were above our risk-based criteria on site and then off-site.

“So based on that, we decided that action was necessary.”

The fire has been burning since late November at the Environmental Landfill, Inc., located about 15 miles northeast of Birmingham, between the suburbs of Moody and Trussville.

Smoke from the fire has been billowing out from the site for more than 54 days, generating complaints of headaches, nosebleeds and breathing problems from nearby residents and complaints about the smell from much of the greater Birmingham area.

What is burning?

The Environmental Landfill, Inc. is designated as a green waste landfill, only legally allowed to accept green waste materials such as fallen trees or other vegetation.

However, neighbors and ADEM inspectors have found unauthorized material at the site in the past, including scrap tires, household waste and appliances.

Nearby residents have long been concerned that the smoke contains more than just trees or other green waste material, and the results may back that up.

While benzene can be formed from natural processes and can be found in forest fires, TCE, originally developed as an anesthetic, is a man-made chemical that does not occur naturally.

According to the National Cancer Institute, TCE is “used primarily to make refrigerants and other hydrofluorocarbons and as a degreasing solvent for metal equipment.

“TCE is also used in some household products, such as cleaning wipes, aerosol cleaning products, tool cleaners, paint removers, spray adhesives, and carpet cleaners and spot removers. Commercial dry cleaners also use trichlorethylene as a spot remover.”

Stilman said TCE is not typically associated with smoke from burning natural materials.

“TCE itself is not indicative of green material,” Stilman said. “So we don’t know exactly where that comes from.

”As we’re putting out the fire, we might discover what’s causing the elevated air results and we also might not,” Stilman said. “We don’t exactly know what the material is, that’s burning that’s causing that.”

Benzene occurs naturally in crude oil, and enters the atmosphere when oil is burned, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is also present in cigarette smoke and used as a solvent by the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.

“Outdoor air contains low levels of benzene from secondhand tobacco smoke, gasoline fumes, motor vehicle exhaust, and industrial emissions,” according to the Cancer Institute.

Is it safe?

ADEM Director Lance LeFleur told AL.com that the two residents air samples were taken from two monitors at the site of the landfill and two from residences that were very close by.

He said the owners of the properties where the samples were taken had been notified of the results, and that residents who are experiencing symptoms may need to consult with their health care providers.

ADEM and EPA will be relying on guidance from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a branch of the US Centers for Disease Control, to help residents understand their risk factors.

“If they have underlying health issues, breathing problems, and the particulates cause them to have concerns, they need to contact their healthcare provider for advice on what their particular situation would require,” LeFleur said.

“Early on, we made the recommendation, which is consistent with what ATSDR and others recommend and that’s to put high-efficiency filters in their air handling equipment to seal off sources of external air, and to limit outdoor activities during the times when the wind is bringing the smoke in their direction, and to take the advice of their healthcare providers.”

Stilman said that the first EPA action has taken at the site Thursday is to set up additional air monitors at the site and in nearby areas to gather more information that could be helpful to people living near the landfill about how much risk they are facing.

“A very large priority for us is to get additional information near the residents,” Stilman said. “And that’s why we’re putting out the air monitoring and air sampling.

“When those results are available, we share those with the health department and with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry so they can give that direct health advice.”

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