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Families still worried about their health, afraid to return home as landfill fire burns

Richard Harp explains one of his sons showed signs of benzene poisoning. Harp does not feel it is safe to return home. (WBMA){ }
Richard Harp explains one of his sons showed signs of benzene poisoning. Harp does not feel it is safe to return home. (WBMA)
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It's been more than six months since that massive landfill fire broke out in St. Clair County and questions remain. The fire is still burning underground and will likely burn for months or even years. So is Alabama better prepared should this happen again?

Richard Harp's family packed up and left their home back on January 1st. The Christmas tree and holiday decorations are still up.

"We are about to pay our sixth mortgage payment since being out of the house," said Harp. While government officials say it is safe to go back home, Harp does not believe that is the case.

Chief among his concerns is his children's health. One of his son's had a build up of benzene in his system and was displaying symptoms.

The long-term effects are leukemia, lymphoma. They're telling us it just smells bad," remarked Harp.

He told us of other neighbors who are ill. His home sits in the valley where he believes the bad air pools.

"They're trying to say this is out, but it is still burning," warned Harp. The fire initially erupted in late November although state officials have acknowledged the fire was likely burning underground for months prior to that. It's believed the fire spontaneously combusted due to unsafe practices at the landfill.



EPA crews took over the task of putting the fire out. Close to three million dollars was spent. The fire was capped with layers of dirt and is described by Harp as an oven baking what's underground.

Earlier this month a working group met in Montgomery. Its mission is to correct deficiencies in state operations that lead to the environmental disaster. The discussions included some pointing the finger at ADEM, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

"They dropped the ball. They were more concerned with the fires in their own department because of over 10 years of records on this site and turning a blind eye to it," said Harp.

ABC 33/40 News was not notified about the meeting. Our I-Team requested notes from the meeting hosted by ADEM. We were told the notes had not been compiled yet.

A spokesperson also said a follow up meeting date has not been set. ABC 3340 News requested we be notified when the date is confirmed. We consider the work of this group to be of high public interest.

State Senator Lance Bell who represents the landfill area in St. Clair County was invited. "Every cabinet agency was at the table looking at how do we fix this and move forward," remarked Bell.

Senator Bell was in office just two months when the fire erupted. "I feel horrible for the community; the government failed them," said Bell.

Moving forward the state EMA is designated to coordinate efforts at the landfill site and update procedures. "They used an emergency protocol established in the 1950's for nuclear fall out," explained Harp.

Harp says he is encouraged by Governor Ivey's creation of the Alabama Resilience Council designed to develop the state's response to emergencies and natural disasters.

With the landfill fire Harp and State Senator Bell say continued air monitoring is critical. "Do we have high levels of benzene? If they're smelling something, then we've still got an issue and I'm not happy," remarked Bell.

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Harp suggests the state of emergency be re-opened. "It's going to be a worse fire if they do nothing," warned Harp.

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