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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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."