Living in the country, I’m used to being able to burn mixed debris piles without interference by the Department of Environmental Quality. You can imagine my surprise when DEQ told Tushka tornado victims that any debris pile that had mixture (non-vegetative/non-timber) couldn’t be burned or those citizens would be fined. This greatly bothered me.
DEQ never made these rules public and most citizens, including myself, weren’t aware of them until after this tragic natural disaster. DEQ told local and state agency officials that if mixed debris was burned on private property it could harm their ability to receive public reimbursement funds, so people stopped burning their debris.
During the cleanup process, I met numerous citizens, some of which didn’t have insurance and, therefore, were facing significant financial detriment and then had the extra worry of how to pay for getting rid of their debris. Because of the “no burning” of mixed debris rule (propagated by DEQ) they were forced to either wait for a volunteer heavy equipment operator to bring a bull dozer or they had to hire one (which usually requires an 8 hour minimum at around $80 an hour for a minimum total of $700). The debris had to be pushed to the nearest public right-of-way at a significant cost to taxpayers.
Burning on site would have made more sense, but because of the EPA (Clean Air concerns as administered by DEQ) with the burning of plastics, rubber, carpet, etc. common sense was set aside. Forgetting the fact that those types of burnings occur every day in the country (where there isn’t trash service) and where the EPA is silent. For the Tushka situation, however, EPA operatives waited until a tragedy occurred to tie private property owners’ hands and saddle the taxpayer with a larger burden.
To deal with the mixed debris piles, Atoka County officials were forced to load the debris and truck it several miles away to a dump site. County workers then had to separate the wood from the rest of the debris before burying or burning it. This is a long, tedious and expensive process. Counties are forced to pay their employees overtime and for fuel that they wouldn’t have had to if citizens were simply allowed to take care of the debris themselves by burning it on location.
The cost of this tedious process is divided as follows: 75 percent is paid by federal taxpayers (through FEMA) and then the county taxpayer and state taxpayer each take on 12.5 percent of the total expense (hundreds of thousands).
As I stated earlier, DEQ was claiming that they had to collect debris this way because it would affect public funds to do otherwise, but when I contacted FEMA (which is where citizens, communities and counties get their disaster relief funding) they assured me that allowing citizens to burn their own debris wouldn’t affect public funding unless the EPA was involved. Since DEQ is the state arm of EPA, it boiled down to the leadership at DEQ, therefore, I started the push for a bill that would address the real concerns (such as the burning of asbestos). I also began to simultaneously convince DEQ that they should overlook other mixed debris issues like they do year-round all over the nation in rural areas. DEQ is silent on those issues, and they also should be after a natural disaster when lives and finances have been shattered.
SB 1425 directs the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management to develop legislative recommendations (by December 2012) necessary to enact a program which will promote the usage of best practices and safety guidelines to allow for onsite burning of debris on private property. This measure will lead to an Oklahoma Emergency Management burning plan that will provide private citizens directives on debris burning and inform/verify there is no asbestos among the debris (which can indeed be a major public health issue if burned and breathed in).
This bill will save taxpayers millions of dollars if residents are allowed to simply burn their debris rather than forcing county workers to haul it off to a dump site. This will save homeowners money by not having to hire a dozer service to push large timber/mixed debris piles to the nearest right-of-way. It’ll also allow residents to use the service of volunteers more efficiently by allowing them to help separate debris on site. This simple change is going to help everyone affected by natural disasters.
To contact me at the Capitol, please write to Senator Josh Brecheen, State Capitol, 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd. Room 513A, Oklahoma City, OK, 73105, email me at email@example.com