• Was PFAS released into Alabama waterways by the Moody Landfill fire?

PFAS in Water

Was PFAS released into Alabama waterways by the Moody Landfill fire?

Apr 06 2024

In late 2022, Alabama was confronted with a daunting challenge: an extensive, underground fire at a landfill north of Birmingham, which not only persisted despite efforts to extinguish it but also exposed significant gaps in the state's emergency response capabilities. 

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) released a report detailing the hurdles faced during the emergency response, citing a lack of experience, equipment, and clarity on jurisdictional authority as major impediments. According to Sen. Lance Bell of Pell City, the state had never encountered an emergency of this magnitude, highlighting an urgent need for better preparedness. 

The fire, which ignited in November 2022, continues to smoulder, releasing smoke and odours intermittently. Efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mitigate the fire's impact through a cover of dirt and grass have only achieved partial success, leading to ongoing concerns among residents and local authorities. 

Amidst this backdrop, the report emphasizes the necessity for a comprehensive review of the Alabama Emergency Management Act and related state and local laws. The goal is to ensure that emergency responders are equipped with the necessary authority and resources to tackle such unprecedented situations effectively. 

The Moody landfill, primarily used for the disposal of vegetative waste, became the centre of controversy due to the accumulation of unauthorized waste materials, further complicating firefighting efforts. ADEM's limited regulatory authority over vegetative waste disposal posed additional challenges in addressing the fire's root causes and implementing preventive measures. 

As the community grapples with the aftermath of the fire, concerns have risen over potential health impacts, particularly regarding the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as "forever chemicals." Both ADEM and EPA have stated that there has been no increase in PFAS, casting doubt that any further investigation would serve a purpose, given the ubiquity of teh compounds. Despite these reassurances, the call for more comprehensive testing to assess the environmental and health implications of the fire has grown louder.  

Since the fire’s beginning, David Butler, a Staff Attorney for Cahaba Riverkeeper, a non-profit that advocates for Alabama’s Cahaba watershed, has criticised the position of ADEM and EPA on the impact of the fire. Claiming that ADEM’s own studies suffered from poor sampling that misrepresented the prevalence of PFAS in the surrounding waterways, Butler sampled water closer to the site and claims to have found far higher levels, thousands of times in exceedance of the federal threshold for safe drinking water. Such claims were roundly criticised by ADEM as ‘Measuring the level of PFAS at the Moody fire site serves no purpose’ and that there was “no reason to believe” that anything other than authorised vegetative waste was in the Moody Landfill, which implies that no PFAS could have been released as there are no natural sources of such compounds.   

Reporting by Inside Climate News from a meeting of concerned locals in Moody suggests an appetite for blood and urine testing to ascertain the levels of exposure to PFAS. Chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Environmental Health Services, Jeff Wickliffe is reported to have told the meeting that more data will be needed to say for certain how residents have been impacted by the blaze.  

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