Canajoharie town Supervisor Robert McMahon says he likes living far from the state’s capitol because the closer you get to Albany, he says, “the deeper the trouble.”
McMahon is among a segment of the state’s rural population wondering why the state Department of Environmental Conservation plans to expand a governmental ban on open burning.
The proposed rule would essentially prevent farmers and other rural folk from burning a pile of leaves or other debris on their own land.
The years-long debate over open burning, typified by calls for an end to the use of “burn barrels,” got an extension earlier this week.
Because so many people came out to public hearings that started in June, the DEC decided to extend the hearings and comment period before sealing the new rule on the books.
People in municipalities with more than 20,000 people are already restricted from burning debris outdoors — the new rule would extend that restriction, with modifications, throughout the state.
McMahon in Canajoharie pictures a farmer cutting down a row of hedges and, without enough money to truck the debris to a landfill, wondering what to do with it.
“What do you do with it, let it rot or blow across the road? Mind your own business down in Albany; let us mind ours,” McMahon said.
The proposed regulation would allow some forms of burning including fire training exercises, small cooking, camp fires and ceremonial fires.
In its proposed rule, the DEC reports that reducing open burning can bring New York state closer to its goal of maintaining “a reasonable degree of purity of the air resources of the state consistent with the public health and welfare and the public enjoyment and the protection of physical property and other resources.”
reasons for the ban
Solid waste is different today than it was 30 years ago when rules governing burning were drafted, according to the DEC.
Plastics and synthetic packaging are a growing part of the waste stream, according to the DEC, and emissions from burning those materials are considered hazardous to people’s health.
Burning garbage, glossy or colored papers, plastics, Styrofoam cups and the like can release heavy metals like arsenic into the air and into the ground. Lead, nickel and chromium can also be found in ash after burning residential waste, according to the DEC.
Dioxins, which are known to cause cancer, are another emission from backyard burning.
Environmental Advocates of New York, a nonprofit organization that urges state government to act responsibly to protect nature and public health, supports expanding the current ban.
Jackson Morris, an Air and Energy Program Associate at Environmental Advocates of New York, said he drives by a burn barrel on his way home from work every day and it’s situated not far from a children’s swing set.
“It’s disgusting,” Morris said.
“It’s an issue that should have been addressed 20 years ago,” Morris said.
The state Legislature has not acted on prompting from environmental groups, and the state agency’s rulemaking is seen as the next best way to reduce the practice, Morris said.
Though cleaner air is considered a worthy goal by many health and environmental groups, there is a financial aspect to the rule.
If debris that’s currently burned in a pit or barrel has to be turned in as recycling or garbage, it will cost money.
According to DEC estimates, a rural town of about 1,000 people could expect its costs for solid waste disposal to increase by as much as $12,155.
The solution to that issue: raise taxes, charge fees at transfer stations or both, according to the DEC’s proposed rule.
With an increase in the amount of household waste, brush and land-clearing debris, communities may need to upgrade transfer facilities they use to collect them, according to the DEC.
In the rural town of Palatine in Montgomery County, Supervisor Sieds Jonker said getting rid of rubbish isn’t easy for residents.
“It’s not like they have a regular garbage pickup, it’s not like living in town and it’s going to be very hard to enforce anyways,” Jonker said.
Morris said the state Environmental Protection Fund provides money for solid waste management grants and matching funds to help municipalities deal with the costs.
There could be some work needed to streamline the disbursement of funding and ensure municipalities know what’s available and how to ask for it.
Morris said it’s unlikely the DEC, with its minimal enforcement staff, could make much headway enforcing the expanded ban.
But putting a rule on the books would give recourse to residents who are concerned with a neighbor’s open burning. A rule outlawing the practice would give a resident grounds to call authorities and complain.
“The fact that citizens can take it upon themselves and pursue those actions would improve under those regulations,” Morris said.