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Trying to stamp out pollution
Backyard burn barrels, which may be the largest source of dioxin pollution, vex state officials.
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
12/20/03

Wisconsin and Minnesota natural resource officials are trying to snuff what's become the largest source of dioxin pollution in the nation -- backyard burn barrels.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources received a report earlier this month that recommends using education, cooperation with local governments and increased enforcement to curb what's now seen as a global environmental issue.

And the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance will ask the 2004 Legislature to end loopholes to a 1969 law that still allows some garbage burning.

Burn barrels only recently came into view as a major pollution source. Scientists had been stumped over why major cuts in dioxin emissions from industrial sources weren't leading to similar reductions on the ground. But a 2000 Environmental Protection Agency study shows burn barrels may be the largest single source of dioxin pollution in the nation.

In Wisconsin, the DNR estimates burn barrels produce more dioxin than all industrial sources combined.

"As we cleaned up industrial sources, the levels of dioxin didn't decline as we expected," said Mary Klun, Douglas County recycling coordinator who served on the state's burn barrel advisory committee that reported to the DNR. "The missing piece turned out to be burn barrels."

WHERE THERE'S SMOKE...

The DNR estimates that half a million Wisconsin homes and farms use burn barrels. Considering on average a person generates 4.5 pounds of garbage per day, that equates to more than a thousand tons of trash burned daily.

And today's garbage contains nasty chemicals unheard of a generation ago. Burning average household trash produces smoke that contains benzene, arsenic, carbon monoxide, lead, mercury, soot and hydrogen cyanide. The smoke is harmful to anyone who breathes it.

The worst culprits are plastics, synthetic fabrics, PVC, treated and painted wood, coated papers and any hazardous waste such as batteries or paint that might be thrown in. When burned at relatively low temperatures, the items release dioxins and furans, carcinogens that can float into the air then fall back to ground where they can build up in livestock, milk, meats and the people who eat them.

The EPA now says dioxin from food in an average diet is one of the leading risks for cancer in the United States, about 1-in-1,000 for the general population and 1-in-100 for people who eat lots of fatty fish or meats. Those are both well above levels the EPA considers acceptable risk.

Dioxin also has been linked to possible reproductive problems and immune system deficiencies in humans.

What we burn, officials remind us, becomes what we eat.

It's been illegal to burn most items in burn barrels in Wisconsin for more than 30 years. But the law has rarely been enforced. The same is true in Minnesota.

"The only two things that are legal to burn are clean wood -- unpainted and unfinished -- and paper that can't be recycled, such as paper towels," said Kevin Kessler, Wisconsin DNR burn-barrel team leader. "It's against the law to burn anything else. But people still do it."

According to the EPA study, a family of four that burns its trash could put as much dioxin into the air as a municipal waste incinerator serving thousands of households. That's because commercial incinerators are equipped with pollution control equipment and burn garbage at much higher temperatures than can be reached in a fireplace or burn barrel.

Some people don't know that it's illegal to burn trash. Others don't know the health and environmental reasons against it. Still others simply don't care, and go right on burning to save money on garbage collection.

"It's a widespread problem. It's all over the county," said St. Louis County Sheriff's deputy Bill Gombold. Gombold, the county's solid-waste enforcement officer, writes dozens of misdemeanor tickets annually for trash burning. Some people are repeat offenders. Others stop burning and get garbage service.

Wisconsin law demands such violations only be prosecuted by the state Department of Justice, a cumbersome process that most authorities are reluctant to use against rural residents who might not even know they're breaking the law.

"For some people, they just don't know. When they find out, they stop," Klun said. "For others, they say they won't give it up until you pry their cold, dead hands off their burn barrel."

In Minnesota, conservation officers, sheriff's deputies and police can issues citations. But it rarely happens.

"A lot of law enforcement (officers) don't even know how serious the issue is and that they should be enforcing it," said Mark Rust, solid waste planner for the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.

In Wisconsin, the recent report recommends that state conservation officers and local law enforcement officers be given authority to write citations for people caught flagrantly violating the garbage burning prohibition. That probably will be requested in 2005.

In Minnesota, lawmakers will be asked in February to eliminate a loophole that allows farmers to burn some garbage if their county doesn't prohibit it. Exactly who qualifies as a farmer hasn't been defined, and many county officials have asked for a single, clear statewide ban on trash with no exceptions.

"That loophole exists from a time when rural solid waste options were limited. That's not the case any more. And a lot of nonfarmer rural residents are taking advantage of it," Rust said. "It's still been illegal for them to burn plastics and such. But once you say they can burn anything, it's almost impossible to enforce the rest."

HARD HABIT TO CHANGE

Both states are hoping that increased education efforts will convince rural residents to stop burning and call their local garbage hauler. In some cases, creative programs have worked.

In Chisago County, Minnesota, hundreds of residents turned in their burn barrels in exchange for a coupon for six months of garbage collection at half price. The county also picked up the old barrel "no questions asked."

From 1996 to 1999, that program cut the number of burn barrels in the county from 5,000 to about 3,000. By 2002, that number dropped to 1,760.

"We've turned the tide. Most people know the seriousness of the issue now, and they are ratting on their neighbors," said Gary Noreen, Chisago County's solid waste coordinator.

But getting burn barrels snuffed in the Northland will be difficult. The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District surveyed 760 adults in 18 northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin counties to determine their attitudes about burning household garbage. Of those responding to the survey, 27.5 percent said they regularly burn household garbage or yard waste.

Responses varied significantly between the two states. Nearly 40 percent of Wisconsin residents and 18 percent of Minnesotans surveyed said they burned garbage. Of the Minnesotans who burn, more than half said nothing could get them to stop.

"It's almost a property-rights issue with some people," Kessler said. "There's very little political appetite out there to do much to stop it."

Doug Fairchild, the WLSSD's burn barrel coordinator, said it may take another generation to get rid of burn barrels altogether.

"We have county boards that won't take any action on this because the county commissioners are still burning and won't stop," Fairchild said. "I think the key now is education, especially in the schools. That's how recycling caught on, and that's probably what it will take to get people away from burning their garbage."

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