January 28, 2012 9:36:00 PM
By JEFF AMY
JACKSON -- Although almost no one seems to know it, it's illegal for everyday citizens to burn common waste in Mississippi.
That may be about to change though as the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality comes under pressure to change the rule.
The ban conflicts with long-held custom, even though it helps Mississippi meet federal air standards for ozone and particle pollution and protects people with asthma and other breathing problems.
Mississippians pile up leaves and branches in their yard and burn them, especially in the fall and winter, instead of having them hauled away as trash or composting them.
Legislators and state officials are now talking about modifying or abolishing the ban, or giving local and county governments the ability to regulate burning as they see fit.
Mississippi is unusual in its outright ban. Most other Southern states allow burning of leaves and branches, though many ban the practice in urban counties or during summer, when ozone pollution is at its worst. Environmental officials are not enthusiastic about the practice, though. Arkansas, for example, says "Open burning of yard waste is strongly discouraged, but permissible."
Because the rule is so little-known, some fire departments around the state have been issuing burn permits regulating what is actually illegal behavior. In doing this, fire departments mirror the Mississippi Forestry Commission, which issues legal burn permits for woodland owners who want to burn off undergrowth to promote larger trees. The Forestry Commission only issues permits when weather conditions are favorable to carry smoke up into the atmosphere.
Forestry Commission spokesman Russell Bozeman said large landowners typically follow the permit system, which provides legal protections, but said the commission believes many smaller landowners burn without a permit.
MDEQ's ban came to light after environmental authorities responded to complaints about burning in Brandon, where the fire department was issuing permits.
Brandon Fire Chief Rob Martin said he prefers to oversee burning so fire officials can keep an eye on it, instead of making people outlaws.
"I would rather regulate that at a local level for safety," said Martin, who also is president of the Mississippi Fire Chiefs Association. He said the ban may cause more harm than good. "If it doesn't stop burning, how many hazards is it going to create?"
He said that like forestry officials, local fire departments can monitor weather conditions before issuing permits. He also said that in Brandon, fires that bother neighbors are ordered extinguished.
The dispute bubbled up to the Legislature last year, when Rep. Mark Baker, R-Brandon, began working on a bill that would overturn MDEQ's rule.
"I just don't think they want to be in that business," Baker said. "I think they want to get out of that business and I want to help them."
He said he'd prefer instead that cities and counties regulate burning.
In the face of possible legislation, MDEQ authorities have signaled they're ready to talk.
"Is there some way we can tweak the law to make it better on both sides?" Harrell asked. "We're ready to negotiate."
Allowing burning on a broader scale could affect others, though. More ozone and soot would be bad for people with asthma and other breathing problems.
Dr. Daniel Venarske, an allergist who practices in Jackson and Ridgeland, said he sees asthma problems every fall that appear related to leaf-burning.
"There's certainly some data to suggest air pollution as a cause of flare-ups," said Venarske.
He said that even if the ban is poorly enforced, overturning it sends a bad message.
"One would advocate on the side of clean air," Venarske said.
State and DeSoto County officials are fighting Environmental Protection Agency efforts to include the county as part of a Memphis, Tenn., region that's flunking federal ozone pollution standards.
Such a nonattainment designation could make it hard to recruit industries and would require more oversight of federally funded road projects. Though DeSoto has very little heavy industry, roads are a major concern in the fast-growing Memphis suburb.
Besides DeSoto County, Gulf Coast counties also have come close to being in violation of ozone standards in the past.
Burning also increases pollution of soot, dust and other particulate matter, which Harrell said is a bigger issue.
"You get counties that are close to their ozone and particulate matter limits, that's going to be pretty crucial," Harrell said. He said burning leaves or branches in a pile makes much more soot than other forms of combustion.
"It could very easily push them over the edge," Harrell said. "Are you going to want to sacrifice economic development?"
Baker, though, said he's content to let localities worry about pollution problems.
"I daresay the folks in DeSoto County know their business."
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