by Gail P. Montany

Although burning trash in a barrel is a time-honored method of disposing of one's garbage, state and local statutes forbid it, health officials decry it, and neighbors raise a howl about it.

And five times in the last few weeks, St. Johnsbury Fire Chief Troy Ruggles has had to deal with it.

With warm weather here now, smoke from burn barrels has been drifting through open windows and causing a nuisance for those who live nearby.

Worse, the toxic by-products of burned man-made materials like plastics and chemicals can wreak havoc on the vulnerable lungs of elderly and asthmatic people.

Paper, cardboard, tires, treated (including painted or finished) wood, plastics and garbage are all illegal to burn.

According to literature provided by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, between 7 and 9 percent of what you burn ends up as air pollution, some of which is highly toxic. And that does not include carbon dioxide, the so-called "greenhouse gas."

Burn barrels, said Ruggles, are OK for leaves, grass or clean wood, but never OK if their smoke is causing a problem for neighbors.

As an alternative to burning, brush can be composted, piled up for wildlife, or left to rot.

Ruggles has been dealing with violators on a complaint basis. If someone files a complaint against a burner, he sends a letter asking the offenders to stop and follows up with a call to see if the problem still exists. He said he does not want to have to start issuing fines for chronic offenders, but his primary considerations are the toxic hazard potential and other people's rights to a clean environment.

Nuisance burning should be reported to the fire department at 748-8925.

Any large burning should be preceded by a call to the fire department to determine if a permit is in order. Generally, said Ruggles, campfires are fine (clean wood, no nuisance), but the department should be alerted if a bonfire is planned.

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