In an emergency meeting Tuesday, the St. Clair County Commission declared a state of emergency to deal with the underground landfill fire that’s been smoldering for more than a month, annoying and aggravating residents from as far as 30 miles away.
The commission action put wheels in motion for a plan to put out the fire at the environmental landfill in Moody and seek funds through the state to pay for it. Fighting the fire is complicated by the fire burning underground and then breaking through at multiple locations on the surface.
A packed commission chamber saw the panel go into executive session to be briefed on possible litigation that could come as a result of the action. After 15 minutes away from the crowd and then instruction from County Attorney Jim Hill, the commission unanimously approved the resolution to address the matter.
“I feel like we took an important step,” Commission Chairman Stan Batemon said. “Not a big enough step to see some action tomorrow, but at least a big enough step to know that action is going to happen really soon that people can see.”
The panel earlier fielded questions from residents about why they’ve had to endure the stench of smoke from the site. A Birmingham firefighter who lives in St. Clair County asked why the emergency declaration could not have come at least a month earlier.
Batemon explained that there are things a county commission cannot do. He added that the county has been busy behind the scenes.
“Our county engineer has gotten some information from some people that actually respond to this,” he said. “We will have to go through quite a bit more (information) now to actually see the fires being put out. But then again, I could say we could see things happening within two weeks.”
A few in attendance said the county had not been receptive to residents, a contention Emergency Manage Agency Director Patrice Kurzejeski flatly disputed. She said her office has continued to field calls about the landfill fire, even on Christmas.
“If one slipped through the cracks, I do apologize,” she said, “but we tried our best. We never stopped working on this, ever, not one minute did we stop. This has consumed us since the day that we knew that it could not be put out. We tried to do the right thing, the legal thing.”
Batemon joked that there hadn’t been so many people in the commission chamber “since we announced the opening of Kmart.” The crowd included residents beyond the St. Clair County border. Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight was seated in the back, along with Vestavia Hills Mayor Pro Tem Rusty Weaver.
State Sen. Lance Bell, R-Pell City, made sure to get a signed copy of the resolution before he left the gathering.
“I’m fixing to go back and be in communication with the state agencies and see what we can do to help get the funding and help get this fire put out,” he said, acknowledging that he could feel the suffering of those who filled the chamber.
“People are having their houses full of smoke,” he said. “Their couches, their clothes, their cars. Their everyday aspect of life has been upended because of the smoke coming off this.”
The Rev. Richard Harp of Deerfoot Church of Christ said the information disseminated today
“was a breath of fresh air.” He later said his home is next to the fire on Annie Lee Road.
Harp said his residence is like having “our own ‘Ash-ville’ in our back yard.” As a result, he and his family have moved into an airbnb.
The emergency meeting lasted an hour, but commissioners remained another hour and a half to address questions and comments from residents.
Doreen Pepper frequently coughed during the assembly, the result of having breathed the smoke. The soprano said she can’t sing at church or to her grandchildren, and she can’t read aloud because her breath runs out.
Pepper’s home in the Carrington subdivision in Trussville is about two miles from the burn site.
“When you look behind my house, it’s all woods,” she said. “If you go to where you can see the ridge at the top, you can see the smoke coming. Then it just lays on our entire street and neighborhood like the Smoky Mountains. It literally looks like fog at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, like it looks like in the Smoky Mountains.
“It has been horrible, a horrible stench, putrid,” Pepper said, adding that she’s been sick since returning from a trip on Nov. 27. “I have been coughing. I’ve had a bloody nose. I have had every symptom that the community has posted on the Blackjack-Annie Lee Road fire info and action Facebook group.”
Batemon was asked whether the Alabama Department of Environmental Management had thrown the problem into the lap of St. Clair County.
“ADEM probably didn’t know what to do with it, either, so they said we’ll give it to y’all,” the commission chairman said. “ADEM, right now, gave it to us to say, ‘Here’s how we think it ought to be done.’ Once we say that this is what we think ought to be done, we’re gonna hand it back to ADEM and say, ‘There it is. Let’s get it done.’”
County Engineer Dan Dahlke will be the point person when it comes to weighing the options for putting out the burn site, which covers about 25 acres and is roughly 100 feet deep.
Early quotes to fix the problem have ranged from $250,000 to $2 million, Batemon said.
“The intent is that it will be some money through the state,” he said. “Most of the time when things like this happen, it’s federal money run through the state. Like if you have a tornado, that money comes through FEMA to the state and then the state puts it out and based on how many people were harmed in a particular area.”
Like Pepper, Batemon compared it to a tourist attraction.
“If you walk around on it, it reminds me of Yellowstone,” the national park that spans parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, he said. “You walk around on it and there are fume holes. There are cracks in the ground with steam and smoke coming out. It kind of looks like you’re at Yellowstone.
“But it is definitely not a tourist attraction.”