Burn Barrel Update
(from Maine Townsman, April 1998)
By Jo Josephson, Staff Writer

  In June of 1996, the TOWNSMAN noted the growing number of burn barrels being used to dispose of residential trash here in Maine. The barrels, which require a permit from the Maine Forest Service (or its designee, the local fire warden), were believed to be in response to the closure of landfills and the rise of pay-by-the bag disposal systems being adopted in a number of towns.

Since the article, the Maine Legislature has addressed the issue of burn barrels twice. In 1997, it enacted LD 967 (Public Law 512). The law made it clear that only towns that do not have a municipal trash collection service are allowed to issue permits for incinerators. It also expanded the definition of a trash collection service: a town was deemed to have a trash collection service if the town

 provides a municipally operated or contracted door to door trash collection service or

 has contracted for door to door trash collection on behalf of its residents, even if no tax dollars are being used to pay for the service or has an ordinance which requires door to door trash collection by individuals

But the new law allowed for an exception in towns that have a municipal trash collection service where there are no provisions for accepting or recycling legally burnable materials. And it made it clear what was legally burnable (leaves, grass, wood, paper, cardboard and other wood products), by specifying what could not be burned (plastics, metals, wire, chemicals, etc.)

Perhaps equally important, Public Law 512 mandated that the Department of Environmental Protection examine the magnitude and impact of backyard burning in Maine, its causes and options for reducing its impact. In addition to examining the magnitude of the problem and its causes, the Backyard Burning Study Group that was formed proposed legislation that called for three things: a mandatory minimum of 300 feet from a residential dwelling, monetary incentives for reducing the incidence of burning, and a program of public education. The bill enacted in1998 by the Legislature (Public Law 672) provides for the incentives but it stopped short of mandating the 300 foot minimum. Instead, the new law, acknowledging the public health risk from toxic chemicals in the smoke plume, "suggested", but did not mandate, locating the incinerator at least 300 feet from any abutting property and at least 150 feet from any residential dwelling. The new law also did not provide for a program of public education.

Legislation aside, what follows are highlights of the "State of Maine 1997 Backyard Trash Burning Study" that was prepared by the Maine Department of environmental Protection, Bureau of Air Quality.


Extent of Backyard Burning

  A survey of town fire wardens and state forest fire rangers identified an estimated 8,510 backyard trash incinerators in the state of Maine. That’s about one barrel for every 144 people. The burn barrel per person ratio is significantly higher in some counties than in others, ranging from a low of 1 barrel per 1,000 residents in Cumberland County to a high of 24 barrels per 1,000 in Aroostook County. (At public hearings, the actual numbers were said to be much higher).

  State law and local ordinances now prohibit backyard trash barrel burning in at least 150 communities statewide, 128 of which are subject to the state level prohibition and 20 of which are corporate members of Regional Waste Systems Inc. and by contractual requirement have adopted backyard burning bans.

  When asked "why they think" people in their town burn their garbage; local fire wardens cited economics, culture, habits and inconvenience. While charges to dispose of the waste, the cost of driving long distances to a transfer station, fees charged by waste collection services, burning trash as a lifestyle, and laziness were given as reasons, no single reason outweighed the others. Attention was given to the fact that island residents, who face the highest waste disposal costs, also have the highest rate of burn barrel usage.

  The estimated total mass of waste burned in Maine back yard burn barrels is about 21 tons per day.

Backyard Burning Emissions

  Backyard incinerators appear to be a significant source of dioxin emission in the state when compared to other known sources of the pollutant. It is estimated to be 12,000 and 38,000 times higher than dioxin emitted by a clean burning municipal waste combustor burning an equal amount of garbage.

 The estimated ash generated by backyard burners annually is between 3243 tons and 4,113 tons; the dioxin content of the ash is 2.5 to 10.5 higher than the state standard for maximum dioxin content in sludge that can be spread on land.

 Disposal of the ash may result in dioxins pervading the food chains, resulting in additional routes of exposure beyond direct inhalation.

 Results of toxicological studies for dioxin shows the potential for health risks within 26 feet of the source of open burning from just 15 minutes of burning; if open burning occurs for many hours in a day, then the potential health risk zone would expand further from the burn barrel.

Relationship of Burning to Waste Management Practices

  Analysis of the warden survey and State Planning Office data showed a strong correlation between the existence of municipal trash collection services and low burn barrel usage. The study found that of the 130 towns with municipal trash collection services, there was only one barrel per 1,000 residents; of the 241 towns without municipal trash collection services and with transfer stations, there were 11 barrels per 1,000 residents; and of the 181 towns without a municipal trash collection service or a transfer station, there were 12 barrels per 1,000 residents.

 However, analysis of the recycling and burn barrel data found no correlation between recycling rates and the number of burn barrels. For example, communities with recycling rates of 41 percent to 50 percent as well as those with a recycling rate of between 11 percent to 20 percent were each found to have 25 barrels per 1,000 residents

 A survey of town fire wardens showed that the majority (58%) would like to see backyard burning banned or restricted to extreme circumstances, while 21 percent were satisfied with the current regulations and 21 percent would like to improve/strengthen both regulations and enforcement.

 Backyard Burning Study Group Recommendations

  The Study Group considered five options for potential legislation: statewide prohibition of backyard burning; statewide prohibition of backyard burning with rural exemptions; statewide prohibition of backyard burning with rural exemptions for overwhelming financial burden; allowed rural burning with setbacks; allowed burning with setbacks in any community without municipal trash collection services.

The Study Group Advisors made the following recommendations:

  Setbacks: A required burn barrel setback of 300 feet from neighboring structures or property lines, as well as an "advisory" burn barrel setback distance from the burners’ own home.

  Municipal Incentives: A program of incentives such as recycling credits or tax credits to encourage towns to provide municipal trash collection services and develop a backyard burn ordinance.

  Education: An educational component geared toward younger generations and modeled after successful recycling and seat belt education campaigns.