Burn Barrels Disappearing From Iowa Countryside

By Dave Rasdal, Reporter

SPRINGVILLE, Iowa - As warm summer air gives way to crisp fall temperatures, an Iowa countryside filled with the aroma of burning leaves is now clearly becoming a sign of autumns past. For burn barrels, those iconic rust-colored 55-gallon drums often tucked behind the garden, are slowly being banned.

In Springville, the City Council approved the third and final reading Monday of a new ordinance to forbid them. When the local law takes effect, probably Dec. 1, Springville will join a growing number of communities including Clinton, which in 2010 became one of Iowa's last larger cities to ban the barrels.

Other communities — Toledo is an example — have opted, instead, to continue allowing residents to burn yard waste in burn barrels, although it will step up enforcement of its ordinance.

"They are actually a disgrace to the neighborhood," said Bill Maertens, who approached the Toledo City Council in July asking for a ban because four burn barrels sit within view of his home.

In Springville, Michelle Stone, who uses a burn barrel, said the city ban punishes everyone because some people abuse the privilege by burning everything from broken up furniture to garbage.

"It's too drastic of a step," said Stone, who estimates Springville has 50 burn barrels. "They didn't issue any citations or anything."

Discussion to ban burn barrels in Springville began in the spring and continued with a summer survey included with water bills. It also included a notice in the city newsletter asking burn barrel users not to abuse the privilege by burning garbage.

The survey, City Clerk Karen Bixler said, showed that a slight majority of voters favored keeping burn barrels. But further discussion by the council with information about how burning can harm air quality prompted the ban.

State law not updated

That's exactly the news Christine Paulson, an environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, likes to hear.

"That's one of the things we've been trying to encourage over the last 12 years with our educational programs," she said. "We understand why other communities have not banned them."

Enacting local bans has been the way to go, she said, since the Iowa Legislature hasn't enacted a variety of DNR proposals that would update some state laws that date back to the 1970s when residents still regularly burned leaves along the curb.

"People really do like to burn stuff," Paulson said. "It's a tradition, especially with older people. It's a very controversial subject. It's my property. I should be able to burn.

"But, when you have a burn barrel," Paulson added, "people are going to throw in whatever."

Toxins in trash

The Iowa DNR website points to the amount of poisons and toxins burning household trash can put into the air according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"EPA emission tests show one burn barrel emits up to 80 times more pollution and up to 11 times the dioxin per pound of garbage burned than a municipal waste incinerator that serves tens of thousands of homes," it says. "Residential trash burning is now the nation's largest source of dioxin emissions."

The website explains that it's illegal to burn materials that can be recycled, that "Exposure increases the long-term health risks for respiratory problems, cancers, birth defects, developmental abnormalities and other serious health problems for burners and persons downwind."

No change in Toledo

In Toledo, Maertens says the burn barrel nuisance goes beyond burning.

"I don't know what's worse," he said, "the burning or the stuff people store around them."

After approaching the Toledo City Council a couple of times, Maertens decided to forego the Aug. 27 meeting when changes to the current ordinance were tabled.

"They decided to leave everything the way it was and to enforce the ordinance," said City Clerk Julie Wilkerson.

That ordinance, she said, allows people to use burn barrels unless neighbors complain. Then, the fire needs to be extinguished. If that's not done, people can call the Police Department, which could issue a citation or notify the Fire Department to put the fire out.

"You're supposed to be considerate," Wilkerson said, "but some people aren't."

As an alternative, she said, residents can haul tree limbs, brush and yard waste to a city drop site at the west edge of town.

Maertens said that's what he does and that, even at 80, he can fill a plastic garbage can with yard waste and haul it away in his pickup. "You could take it out there just as easily in the trunk of your car," he added.

Maertens said Toledo's burn barrels aren't a huge problem — during a drive around town he counted 16 — but that he's concerned about the way some people use them. They'll pile up wet grass clippings which smolder as they burn. They'll burn some garbage. Or, they'll start a fire and leave it dangerously unattended.

"If they're not attending it," Maertens said, "I'll call the police department. That's what they told me to do."
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