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New burn law left smoldering for now

Fifty-five gallon barrels are used to burn household trash. (click for larger version)
March 23, 2011 - Michigan's long-standing practice of burning household waste in rural communities may be close to going up in smoke.

A law to ban burning household trash which has been allowed in burn barrels statewide for material such as wood, paper and foam for the past 30 years, was set to expire on April 1.

If that exemption was allowed to lapse, anyone caught burning household waste would be subject to fines laid out in local codes. Municipal agencies and law enforcement will be responsible for handling any violations.

However, last week, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ Director Dan Wyant retracted for further review the proposed rule banning the open burning of household waste. The DEQ officials said they spent nearly two years formulating the proposed rule. Michigan is one of 10 states in the country and the only state in the Great Lakes region with no rules on burning garbage.

"For many folks in Michigan, it's been a long standing practice to burn trash," said Brad Wurfel, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, communications director. "It's about the expense issue, it's a cultural thing—that's all understandable. But when you burn garbage that also includes diapers, plastics, batteries—toxins are released in the air. In addition, residents mix that product in their garden and that gets in your household well, then leaches it, becoming a bigger hazard."

"Times have change," he said. "The department (MDEQ) is under no illusions, residents will still burn trash. What we are attempting to do is raise awareness about burning waste and provide communities the tools to respond."

Groveland Township Supervisor Bob DePalma said such a law is very difficult to enforce.

"Who's going to run around the township and enforce this law?" he said. "Right now, unless someone is burning something hazardous like plastic or carpet and the neighbors complain, we just don't know who burns what. Consider that many of the lots are six acres or more, there's really nothing we can do. I believe this law would apply more to urban, densely populated areas."

Wurfel said that public comment in the past month – to the DEQ and to state lawmakers – has been substantial, and indicates the public has concerns about this rule.

The change prompted Rep. Kenneth Kurtz to propose legislation that would bar Michigan's Department of Natural Resources from stopping the practice.

Bill 4207 would prohibit (DEQ) from promulgating rules to prohibit the open burning of household waste from a one-family or two-family dwelling at the location of the dwelling.

Most states prohibit the burning of trash, and Michigan last year laid out plans to end the practice. Flames or sparks from burn barrels can start wildfires, and some neighbors complain of smoke and smells from burning trash. Waste also can give off dangerous fumes from materials such as hydrogen cyanide, dioxin, benzene, lead and mercury.

The use of burn barrels is common in some rural areas that lack affordable garbage pickup, and some people in those areas are opposed to the ban.

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