Working Group on the Government Response to the Vegetative Waste Site Fire in St. Clair County
SUMMARY FINAL REPORT
The working group, formed in March 2023, was created to examine the government response to the fire at the vegetative waste disposal site in St. Clair County near the city of Moody. The working group included two state legislators and leaders of several state and local government agencies and associations. Its tasks were to:
- Gather information about the fire and the response to it by local, state and federal authorities.
- Identify shortcomings or gaps in authority of State and local governments to respond to such emergencies.
- Assess whether changes in laws, regulations and resources are needed in light of the fire.
- Make recommendations to the Legislature and Governor to address issues of concern revealed by the fire and the response to the fire.
Members of the working group included:
- State Sen. Lance Bell
- State Rep. Danny Garrett
- Lance LeFleur, Director of the Alabama Department of Environmental Management
- Jeff Smitherman, Director of the Alabama Emergency Management Agency
- Rick Oates, State Forester with the Alabama Forestry Commission
- Rick Pate, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries
- Sonny Brasfield, Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama
- Greg Cochran, Executive Director of the Alabama League of Municipalities
The working group held four meetings – in March, April, May and June.
The following is the working group’s report.
The fire at the vegetative waste site in St. Clair County near the city of Moody began on or around Nov. 25. Despite the site being outside the city limits of Moody, the Moody Fire Department responded to the fire. The Fire Department’s efforts to extinguish the fire by spraying thousands of gallons of water on it succeeded in tamping down the above-ground blaze. The Fire Department was, however, unable to extinguish fires that burned underground and emitted significant amounts of smoke.
The Alabama Forestry Commission also responded. It built a fire break around the site to prevent the fire from spreading. That effort succeeded in keeping the fire contained to the approximately 15 acres of the vegetative waste site.
The site is on private property and had been used for more than 10 years for the disposal of vegetative wastes, such as trees, limbs, leaves, shrubs and similar materials. Over the years, the site had accumulated a substantial amount of vegetative wastes, piled as high as 100 feet or more in some places and partially covered in dirt. That not only made extinguishing the fire extremely difficult but dangerous as well to fire fighting personnel.
Numerous residents of the surrounding area complained about smoke from the fire. They expressed concerns about the health impacts of breathing the smoke, as well as smoke damage to their homes and other property. Some residents said they moved away from their homes to avoid the smoke.
Some residents also said they encountered problems in filing insurance claims for their damage or had questions about their insurance coverage.
FINDINGS OF FACT
After its review, the working group determined the following facts to be true concerning the government’s response to the fire.
- The response to the fire by government agencies at the state and local level was hampered by questions of whether the agencies had legal authority to take action to extinguish a fire on private property.
- A fire of this nature and scope had not occurred before in the state, and there was uncertainty as to which state or local agency should take the lead in responding to the fire.
- No state or local agency had the resources or expertise to extinguish an underground fire of the size and nature of the fire near Moody.
- The fire posed significant safety risks to responders due to the possibility of collapses or flare-ups.
- Numerous residents and businesses were impacted by smoke from the fire.
- A cause of the fire has not been determined.
State Emergency Operations Plan
- The State Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) defines the roles, responsibilities, resources and procedures of state agencies during disasters and other emergency incidents that exceed local government’s capability.
- Under the EOP, a State Coordination Group (SCG), comprised of representatives of various state agencies with responsibilities for responding to emergencies, can be called to determine whether an incident rises to the level of an emergency and coordinate with all state agencies.
- The state Emergency Management Agency (EMA) is responsible for calling the SCG into action and for coordinating with other agencies, but any state agency or local government can request that the EMA call the SCG into action.
- The state EMA, which coordinates the state government’s response to disasters and assistance in the aftermath of disasters did not see that the fire met the criteria of a state emergency and did not call the SCG into action.
- Neither the St. Clair County Commission nor the St. Clair County EMA requested SCG involvement.
- A State of Emergency was declared by the Governor at the same time that she authorized EPA assistance with extinguishing the fire. The emergency order reiterated existing legal authorities available to local officials under the Emergency Management Act to expedite procurement of emergency services and supplies and to take reasonable steps to extinguish the fire and mitigate its effects. A copy of the order is attached to this report.
St. Clair County Response
- After the initial efforts by the Moody Fire Department were unable to extinguish the fire that burned deep in the mass of vegetative wastes, the St. Clair County Commission took the lead in trying to determine how best to extinguish the fire.
- The commission declared a “state of emergency,” but county officials were doubtful the declaration gave them actual authority to take action on private property to extinguish the fire.
- County officials evaluated proposals from three private companies (referred to the county by ADEM) with experience in putting out underground fires. But county officials concluded they lacked both the expertise to choose from the different proposals and the authority to go on to private property to try to put out the fire.
Alabama Department of Environmental Management
- Because state law does not allow for the regulation of vegetative waste disposal, the site was not subject to regulation by ADEM, the state’s environmental regulatory agency.
- Even though the vegetative waste disposal site had the name “Environmental Landfill Inc.,” and accepted vegetative wastes as well as concrete and asphalt, it was not a regulated landfill under state law and was not required to obtain state permits to operate.
- ADEM had no authority or responsibility to act under the state EOP, and no firefighting ability.
- ADEM investigated the site on several occasions after receiving complaints of the presence of regulated materials (non-vegetative wastes). Upon finding regulated materials at the site, ADEM issued notices of violations to the private business operator of the site and ordered that the materials be removed. The operator documented removal of regulated materials and the posting of signage to discourage illegal dumping.
- During its investigations of regulated materials at the site, ADEM inspectors also notified the private business operator that the site posed a fire hazard due to the amount of vegetative waste at the site, but ADEM had no authority to force the site operator to take corrective steps.
- Incidental amounts of regulated materials were found at the site at the time of the fire. However, regulated materials were not a significant factor in the fire.
- ADEM conducted water sampling of waterways near the site and downstream of it, and determined the fire was not significantly affecting water quality.
- ADEM established an online communications hub – moodyfireupdate.com – to provide the public with timely information about the fire, efforts to extinguish the fire, air and water quality monitoring, and other pertinent information.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- In December, ADEM requested the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had contractors on retainer with expertise in extinguishing underground fires.
- EPA, at that time, responded that it did not have authority to act because the vegetative waste site was not a facility that handled regulated materials.
- After all state and local options had been exhausted, ADEM again sought to initiate EPA involvement by asking the agency to install its mobile air monitoring systems to determine the extent of hazardous substances in the smoke emitted by the fire.
- EPA’s air monitoring showed levels of four elements of concern above actionable levels at the site, with two of the elements measuring above actionable levels at one residence near the site.
- These results enabled EPA to take action to eliminate the health risk by extinguishing the fire.
- ADEM requested EPA take the lead in extinguishing the fire using EPA’s contractors, and the agency agreed.
- EPA mobilized its emergency response personnel and contractors, and chose to extinguish the fire by smothering it with dirt.
- After about three months of trucking in dirt and packing it on top of the burning vegetative wastes, and grading and seeding the area to prevent erosion, EPA concluded its work.
- EPA said the fire will likely continue to smolder underground until the vegetative waste fueling the fire is exhausted.
- EPA has conducted follow up air monitoring, detected no chemicals at actionable levels, and has communicated that information to nearby residents.
- The fire is expected to continue to smolder for an indefinite time, releasing occasional odor and smoke.
- Some residents are continuing to express concerns about their health and property damage due to smoke from the fire.
- The Alabama Department of Insurance has encouraged residents to file claims with their insurance providers and to contact the Department of Insurance if residents have problems or questions about their claims.
- ADEM is in the process of taking enforcement action against the site operator.
The fire at the vegetative waste disposal site in unincorporated St. Clair County was unprecedented in its nature and scope, and state and local governments were not equipped to respond to a fire of this type and magnitude. The government response to the fire was hampered by a lack of clarity about which agency should lead the response, the lack of experience in responding to events outside of the usual extreme weather events and natural disasters typically managed under the EOP, the lack of government equipment and trained personnel to extinguish a fire of this type and magnitude, the lack of available response contractors on retainer, as well as legal concerns about the authority of state or local governments to take action on private property to extinguish the fire. The State Emergency Operations Plan would have provided guidance in responding to the fire but was not activated.
However, even if the state EOP had been followed, the state and local governments lacked the resources and expertise to extinguish the large, underground fire. The EPA, using its private contractors, was the only available entity with the timely ability to extinguish the fire.
The fire revealed shortcomings in the capability of state and local agencies to respond to emergency situations that are outside the scope of their regulated activities but pose risks to the public. There is a need to ensure agencies and personnel have a clear understanding of their responsibilities under the state EOP, including the circumstances under which EOP procedures should be initiated and actions taken.
After reviewing the government response to the fire at the vegetative waste disposal site in unincorporated St. Clair County near Moody, the working group is making the following recommendations:
- The Governor’s Office should direct the state EMA to establish a Unified Command to monitor the ongoing fire at the site near Moody.
- The Governor’s Office should direct the state EMA to initiate a review of the State Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) to determine: (1) if it contains adequate contingency plans for underground fires and (2) if changes are needed to clarify under what circumstances the State Coordination Group (SCG) should be activated, including reiterating that the state
EMA is responsible for coordinating with state and local agencies in all emergencies pursuant to the Emergency Management Act.
- The Alabama Emergency Management Act of 1955 should be reviewed and amended if it is determined that state or local government needs additional legal flexibility to respond to a situation such as the Moody fire, above and beyond the legal flexibility already afforded under the current Act.
- The state EMA should provide training to local EMA officials to ensure they are knowledgeable of the state EOP and the SCG and their role and responsibilities under the EOP and ability to request action by the SCG.
- State leaders, including the Governor, the Legislature, and the state EMA, should determine whether additional resources, financial and otherwise, are needed to adequately respond to similar emergencies in the future.
- The EMA should consider placing on retainer or pre-vetting, similarly to what EPA does, contractors with the expertise and equipment to extinguish large underground fires.
- State and local laws governing access to private property should be reviewed and amended, if necessary, with the goal of clearly defining that first responders and representatives of state and local governments and agencies, have legal access to such properties during emergencies.
- The state EMA should be designated as the agency responsible for coordinating the needs of residents and businesses following environmental emergencies as well as natural disasters, including seeking state and federal aid that may be available.
- Residents affected by the fire near Moody should be advised to file claims with their insurance providers and to contact the Alabama Department of Insurance if they have questions about their insurance.