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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 stations, David Sommerstein of North Country Public Radio reports convincing people to obey the law is an ongoing effort.
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.
“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,” said Lago.
Lago said he got the O.K. 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. Not far from Lago, Phil Soper says he’s not about to give it up.
“I still burn my papers. That’s all I burn is papers. I do not burn trash,” said Soper.
Soper has burned stuff at his hunting cabin for as long as he can remember.
“And it’s back in the woods about a mile and we have two burning 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,” said Soper.
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. Backyard burning produces a noxious cloud of toxic chemicals, including dioxin, according to Carpenter. It can spread far beyond the burn pile itself.
“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, said Carpenter”
The U.S. 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.
“You wouldn’t dump your trash on your neighbor’s lawn. So why would you put it in your neighbor’s air?”
Vermont outlawed trash burning 16 years ago. But the state still levies $500 to $10,000 fines to violators. Gary Kesler directs environmental compliance in Vermont.
“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 are actually recycle-able and they burn them,” said Kesler.
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, said the burn bans just create other problems.
“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,” said Soper. “It’s gonna cost us taxpayers big, big money.”
Even so, according to environmental officials any waste that is not burned is pollution kept out of everyone’s air.