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Friday, February 4, 2000

It's time to toss out burn barrels

The recent case of a burn barrel complaint in the Otsego County town of Roseboom has pointed out yet again the need for a statewide ban on the practice.

Maybe decades ago when populations were thinner and trash less toxic it was a tolerable way to dispose of household waste. But those days are gone. It's time state environmental regulators get real about the effects of burn barrels.

Unfortunately, burn barrels are legal in New York state communities with populations of fewer than 20,000.

In the Roseboom case, some people complained to the DEC about their neighbor's use of a burn barrel, which they claimed was sending a noxious smoke wafting over their properties. While the man can't be prosecuted for using the burn barrel, the state is pursuing burning and air pollution charges that he allowed the smoke to leave his property.

And that smoke is just what concerns his neighbors – and us, too.

Data from a study in 1997 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency revealed the practice of open burning to be even dirtier and more dangerous than scientists had previously thought. The study was done in cooperation with the state departments of Environmental Conservation and Health.

When plastic refuse or paper is burned in burn barrels, dioxin, a toxic by-product, is released into the air. Burn barrels often emit acid vapors, carcinogenic tars and "heavy metals" such as lead, cadmium and chromium, as well as unhealthy levels of carbon monoxide.

The issue of burn barrels has ignited more than once during the past decade in Otsego County, initially after the county instituted recycling and signed on with MOSA.

Since then, some towns have discussed but not passed proposals to ban burn barrels, and the county board clarified its policy by barring the most blatantly negative effects of burn barrel emissions, but not the practice itself.

The issue made it to the state Legislature in 1995, with the Assembly approving a statewide ban and the Senate refusing to address it. Some senators, including James Seward, R- Milford, argued that burn barrel regulation should be a local matter, not a state one.

The problem in rural towns, however, is that many of the leaders charged with overseeing the use of burn barrels are users themselves. It is a longtime rural practice that has taken on a new life as the cost of waste disposal has climbed – especially in Otsego County with the MOSA situation.

So, no, we can't leave the matter in local hands. It is time the state acted. In the 21st century, there is no good reason why people should be permitted to toss their trash into a big barrel and torch it without regard to the air or the neighbors.



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