State wants to ban burn barrels

WORTHINGTON -- Rural residents are considered to be the best recyclers in Nobles County, but according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) they -- along with all of southwest Minnesota's rural population -- appear behind the times wh...

WORTHINGTON -- Rural residents are considered to be the best recyclers in Nobles County, but according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) they -- along with all of southwest Minnesota's rural population -- appear behind the times when it comes to using burn barrels on their farms.

In 1969, the Minnesota Legislature passed a law banning all backyard burning of refuse. That law, however, contained a loophole, essentially allowing farmers to continue burning and burying their garbage as long as there was no rural garbage hauling service available.

According to the MPCA's Mark Rust, it was up to each of the state's 87 counties to adopt a no-burn barrier resolution once rural garbage hauling services were offered. To this day, only 28 counties have adopted the resolution -- the majority located in central and northwest Minnesota. None of the counties in southwest Minnesota have a policy in place.

Within the next three years, by 2010, the MPCA wants each Minnesota county to adopt a resolution banning all backyard garbage burning. The state agency will lobby again in the next legislative session to fix the loophole in the 1969 statute, but Rust said it's a matter of educating legislators -- and the public -- on the reasons behind the burn barrel ban.

Clean air,


clean environment

Renewable energy projects, clean water programs and recycling efforts in Minnesota tell the story of a state focused on clean air and a clean environment, but there's more work to be done.

Rust has worked since the mid-1990s to reduce the number of rural burn barrels in the state. He educates people on the health risks associated with burn barrel emissions, works with communities and counties to develop alternatives to burn barrels and provides access to grants to help fund local projects.

A recent effort in Chisago County offered rural residents six months of half-price garbage hauling service in exchange for their burn barrel -- a program Rust said was a "win-win" for all involved. The garbage hauler got a new customer, while the rural resident got rid of the burn barrel.

"They cut the number of people who burn (garbage) by close to half," he said.

Fewer rural residents burning garbage greatly reduced the amount of harmful emissions produced from a burn barrel -- the most toxic being dioxin, a known carcinogen.

Mark Koster, an environmental services officer for Nobles County, said dioxin can cause an array of health ailments, from cancer to reproductive disorders, liver damage and impairment of the nervous system.

In Minnesota, the majority of dioxin in the air is produced from backyard burn barrels -- an amount greater than all known sources of the pollutant combined, Rust said.


"If you compare a full-scale municipal waste combuster, that's equivalent to one burn barrel for a family of four, for the level of dioxin produced in one day," he said.

With an estimated 45 percent of the state's rural residents -- the figure is closer to 60 percent in southwest Minnesota -- still using burn barrels, that's a lot of dioxin being released into the air, he added.

County receptive

to barrel ban

Nobles County officials don't dispute the dangers of dioxin. In fact, Koster said, the county is receptive to the MPCA's guidelines for backyard burn barrels. For the past 15 years, Schaap Sanitation has provided garbage handling services for rural residents, making the MPCA's goal to eliminate backyard burning by 2010 entirely feasible for the county.

Eric Joens, district manager for Schaap Sanitation, said about 50 percent of Nobles County farms already utilize the company's garbage handling services on a weekly, bi-monthly or monthly schedule. There are also quite a few rural residents who haul directly to the landfill -- a group of people who may not have been factored into the MPCA's estimates of burn barrel usage, he said.

"Farmers manage their waste no different than any other business," Joens said, adding that most of the larger farms in the county already contract with Schaap for garbage hauling.

"The rural people are probably the best recyclers in the county," he continued. "Their waste volume is reduced dramatically by everything they recycle."


While Schaap Sanitation is in business to haul garbage, Joens said an MPCA mandate against burn barrels isn't the best solution to the problem.

"They try to mandate instead of perhaps enforcing where there's a violation," he said. "They should deal with people who violate the rules rather than mandate garbage collection."

Rust said the MPCA wants to work with counties and agencies so that it doesn't seem like people are being forced to comply.

"We want to meet people half way and develop programs that are going to change behavior," he added.

The MPCA has conducted meetings with numerous counties and solid waste officials in recent months, and that work will continue. Next month, meetings are scheduled in Blue Earth and New Ulm, and a presentation will also be made to elected officials at the Association of Minnesota Counties annual meeting.

"Our goal is to educate -- get out there and hope to build momentum and reduce the number of people burning and hopefully get changes in the statute," Rust added.

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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