MOODY, AL (WBMA) — What could have and should have been done to prevent the massive landfill fire in Moody at Environmental Landfill, Inc.? It's been burning for more than 50 days now. The ABC3340 News I-Team has been digging deeper into documents filed with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. (ADEM)
Records reveal a troubling story of warnings and inaction. There were multiple complaints about the landfill and ADEM conducted multiple inspections for unauthorized dumping over the past nine years. Photos inside those files paint a disturbing picture: piles of construction debris, old vehicles, chemically treated power poles, tires and in some cases suspected special waste which can include industrial and human waste.
ADEM has maintained it does not regulate green waste landfills which are supposed to take only things like trees and brush. It can only respond to complaints.
Some in the local community are asking why this landfill wasn't shut down years ago? "All the statewide people, it's their job to make sure residents are safe," remarked Kristin Hodges. Her family like so many others are not safe now living with toxic smoke.
"You hear coughing, nose bleeds, people worrying about their homes, clothes and furniture. It's devastating," said Attorney Caroline Hollingsworth whose firm has filed a class action lawsuit against the landfill owners. "Our phones are ringing off the hook talking to potential clients," remarked Hollingsworth.
Attorneys say they're not expecting a big cash settlement with their class action lawsuit, but through depositions and sworn testimony they hope to expose the truth. "Provide answers and awareness hopefully enough awareness this won't happen again," explained Hollingsworth.
If you look at ADEM's track record with this landfill, there are concerns it will happen again. ABC3340 News reviewed nine years of ADEM files on landfill inspections and complaints dating back to 2013. Over and over there were notations about a 'fire hazard potential' at least seven times.
SEE ALSO: EFFORTS TO PUT OUT MOODY FIRE CONTINUE
"We inspected the site on several occasions and when there was regulated waste on the site we issued a notice of violation," said ADEM Director Lance LeFleur.
The first NOV was in November of 2013 which was followed by a demand in a letter to close the 'unauthorized dump.' More complaints in September of 2014 and again in the summer of 2017. One report noted 'demolition waste, appliances, scrap tires, petroleum contaminated soil and household waste.'
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Carol Russell wrote on behalf of her brother Scott Russell who owns the landfill to ADEM. In it she said, "We at Environmental Landfill Inc, as a small family run business, hold safety and compliance at the upmost importance."
She added the landfill added new signs, surveillance cameras and employees onsite Sundays. According to Russell customers were reminded under 'no circumstances are they allowed to bring in any type of unacceptable materials.'
But ADEM inspection reports in March, April and August of 2019 highlight more issues. One report noting 'the operator of the site has attempted to hide waste previously dumped.'
The gates were found open and no landfill personnel was onsite the day inspectors were at the landfill. In August of 2019 the file notes ADEM met with the landfill owners..
Fast forward three years to August 2022 and a report states landfill operator Charlie Rich told ADEM they now have an 18 month remediation plan for the landfill. It's noted that old power poles and pallets were removed.
However the 'fire hazard potential' along with 'suspected special waste' such as hazardous or medical waste was noted..
Director LeFleur explained why stronger action was not taken. "The owner of the landfill corrected the situation and the incidental material onsite was removed."
Three and a half months later in November, the landfill was on fire. Prior to that no legal action taken was taken by the state to force a clean up of the site, not so much as a fine for the owner or operator. "They labeled it a fire hazard, clearly it was," said Attorney Hollingsworth.
Hodges has sent her young children out of state to live with their grandparents until she feels it is safe for them to come back to Moody. "People are going to remember exactly how our leaders responded or didn't respond," said Hodges.
Moving forward it will be up to state lawmakers to decide whether ADEM needs more regulatory powers and a bigger budget. But some question whether ADEM is up for that job given its lax track record on environmental issues.
ABC3340 News has been unable to reach the landfill owners for comment.