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Backyard burn barrels still used

Goodhue County Commissioner Richard Samuelson ditched his backyard burn barrel years ago.

The farmer said it was a great decision.

"We did have a burn barrel years ago and I hated it," Samuelson said. "The best thing we did was get rid of that."

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has had a hard time convincing others that burn barrels are a bad idea.

The agency is leading the push to end outdoor garbage burning, but has found opposition among farmers.

Mark Rust, solid waste planner for the MPCA, said a 2005 survey found that about half the people living in rural areas burned their garbage outside.

While state law bans most outdoor garbage burning, Rust said it gives farmers an exemption if they don't have a reasonable alternative, like access to a garbage pickup service.

Rust said the problem is most people don't realize how dangerous it can be to burn garbage.

"Of the known dioxins that are created in our atmosphere in the United States, the majority now comes from actual outdoor burning of garbage," Rust said.

While some Minnesota counties have banned any garbage burning altogether, Goodhue County still allows burning in rural areas where access to trash-hauling services is limited.

Local officials won't estimate just how many Goodhue County residents burn garbage but admit it is a regular occurrence.

"There's a fair share of it out there," said Karl Nilsen, Goodhue County solid waste official. "You just have to drive around and you see it."

Nilsen said residents who still burn garbage likely have access to trash services. The question is whether that option is economically efficient for farmers and others in rural areas.

Trash service is more expensive for rural residents than it is in more populated areas like Red Wing, Nilsen said.

Still, he does not think burn barrels are the answer.

"I don't think trash should be burned in anything other than an engineered waste facility," he said.

Part of the problem, said Goodhue County Commissioner Dan Rechtzigel, is that burn barrels are a way of life for some people.

"It's just tradition," he said. "That's just the way it's always been."

Rechtzigel said he's leery of the MPCA's push to stop garbage burning.

The commissioner said the agency needs to make a stronger case that burning trash is bad for the environment and also present more cost-efficient alternatives for farmers.

"People do things because there's an incentive to do it," Rechtzigel said. "I don't think there's any real urgency by people to stop doing this because there isn't anything out there that says this has to end now.

"The MPCA has to make its case. They can't just arbitrarily start going after people."

Rechtzigel said rural residents - he represents the Kenyon area - also have practical reasons for burning trash.

He said putting sensitive information like credit card receipts out in a rural area can be dangerous because garbage trucks can take hours to pick up trash.

"They love the environment just as much as anyone else but they have real valid concerns here," Rechtzigel said. "That type of information is so much easier to steal in the rural areas."

Rechtzigel said he would have a hard time backing a ban that could cut into law enforcement officers' time.

"Our law enforcement officers have more pressing criminal matters to deal with," Rechtzigel said. "I'd rather have them busting meth labs, tracking down wife beaters and dealing with people who are truly bad for society - not someone who is burning a bag of garbage in their backyard."

The Associated Press Contributed to this story.