County discusses enforcement of backyard garbage burning prohibitions

Rural counties in Minnesota are being asked to adopt resolutions prohibiting backyard garbage burning, but doing so could shift financial responsibility for enforcement to the counties instead of the state.

This summer, Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Edward Ehlinger and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Commissioner John Linc Stine sent a letter to public health officials and solid waste administrators that said, “As you are aware, backyard garbage burning poses a significant risk to Minnesotans’ health and environmental quality.  Garbage contains plastics and other synthetics that, when burned at low temperatures (such as in a burn barrel), release smoke containing harmful dioxins and particulates.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), backyard garbage burning is the largest source of dioxin emissions in the U.S.

“…Dioxins are known to cause cancer and other harmful physiological effects in people.  Dioxins from burning garbage can enter the human food chain when livestock eat contaminated feed and vegetation.  Over time, dioxins can accumulate in our bodies through the consumption of meat, fish, and dairy products.”

The Minnesota Department of Health and the MPCA have challenged Minnesota counties to adopt no-burn resolutions.  As of this summer, 29 counties had done so.  “These counties aimed to change behavior through education and making waste disposal more convenient and affordable for all rural residents,” the letter said.

According to their letter, their goal is to have all non-metro area counties adopt such resolutions, but they estimate that 228,000 households still burn their garbage.

In a November 2, 2013 email to Commissioner Sue Hakes, Planning & Zoning Director Tim Nelson stated, “…There is a differing of opinions between even MPCA staff members on the county’s role in enforcing open burning and burn barrels.  We currently do not have any county-level prohibition on our books, but that’s because we have always worked with the MPCA for enforcement, and putting it on our books would shift that responsibility to us on the county level.”  The Planning & Zoning Department has assisted the MPCA with enforcing state burning rules.

“If we do want to take the program on locally,” Nelson wrote, “we will not receive any additional funding from the state to do so. …We are making plans on cooperating regionally again on advertising and billboards to promote awareness against burn barrels….”

At the November 12 county board meeting, Commissioner Sue Hakes brought up the issue and suggested that they discuss various options ranging from education to ordinance.

Director Nelson said garbage burning is much more of an issue in central and southern Minnesota than it is in Cook County.  His office does receive reports of people burning trash in their woodstoves, however – the smoke from burning garbage can be seen and smelled.

Commissioner Garry Gamble wondered if the state’s purpose in pushing the issue is really to get counties to take over the cost of enforcement.  If the state has been able to keep a handle on the issue, he said, then there’s no reason for counties to take it on.