Clean Harbors Open Burn Facility Lawsuit
When you throw something away, you usually don’t have to think about how to properly dispose of it—the waste management company has the proper protocols in place to dispose of household and business waste safely. However, some businesses and the armed forces have much more dangerous waste, called hazardous waste, that needs special treatment so that it doesn’t contaminate the environment and harm people.
Hazardous waste disposal companies exist to address this need. They are equipped and trained to dispose of waste ranging from expired fireworks and explosives, to toxic chemicals and other dangerous materials.
When properly disposed of, hazardous waste is no more dangerous than any other type of waste. However, if that waste is handled poorly, it poses huge risks to the environment, and the people, that live and work nearby.
Clean Harbors is one of the largest hazardous waste handling companies in North America, and they’ve been the defendants in a number of lawsuits alleging mishandling of waste. The latest of these cases is happening in Colfax, Louisiana, and is the subject of a VICE documentary that outlines the struggles of the people in this community as they try to get their voices heard.
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Clean Harbors Open Burn Pits in Colfax, LA
Clean Harbors has been operating its Colfax facility for nearly 40 years, disposing of explosives, thermal, chemical, physical, and biological treatment units, and more under their RCRA Part B, Subpart X permit, using open-air burn pits. They claim that their “emissions are not a threat to human health or the local environment,” but the residents of Colfax can point to injuries, illnesses, and even deaths that evidence otherwise.
The Clean Harbors facility in Colfax is “the only commercial facility in the United States that open burns and open detonates,” according to Colfax resident Brenda Vallee. When the smoke from those detonations dissipates and eventually falls to earth, they can expose the land, plants, animals, and people to toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, xylene, and others.
What Are Burn Pits?
Burn pits are holes dug in the ground where trash and other waste is thrown in and burned, which makes them an extremely cheap and effective way to dispose of waste. They have been used by the U.S. military to dispose of waste for decades, and burning trash has been a common method of disposal for much of human history.
A major drawback of burn pits, however, is the toxic smoke and ash that can be released by burning trash. Many materials commonly disposed of in burn pits, such as explosives and plastics, contain multiple toxic organic compounds that can cause harm to individuals who breathe burn pit smoke or come into contact with falling ash. While it’s relatively easy to mitigate these risks by enclosing the burn pit and filtering the smoke, open burning is around 20 times cheaper.
Because it’s so much cheaper to dispose of hazardous waste in open air burn pits, Clean Harbors has been using this method of waste disposal in its Colfax facility since its opening in 1985.
Open Air Burn Pits
The Clean Harbors facility in Colfax uses open air burn pits to dispose of the waste it receives, which is mostly expired ignition material from the military, expired fireworks from theme parks like Disneyland, and other hazardous, explosive waste. This facility not only burns the hazardous waste they receive; because much of it is explosive, the residents of nearby Colfax are subjected to explosions throughout much of the day as well.
When burn pits are open to the air, toxic ash and fumes rise into the atmosphere, where they’re blown by prevailing winds and eventually settle on the ground, plants, animals, and people nearby. These toxic chemicals can lead to an increased risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. In addition, it can inhibit crop growth and cause other environmental ill effects.
What Is Burn Pit Exposure?
Exposure to the toxic smoke, fumes and ash of open burn sites can lead to a number of health problems. While many of the victims of burn pit exposure served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians such as the residents of Colfax, Louisiana can also suffer symptoms.
The difference between these two groups is that, while the service members who were exposed are beginning to be compensated for their damages, the residents of Colfax have yet to see their day in court.
Burn Pit Exposure Symptoms
Exposure to the airborne hazards from burn pits can run the gamut from marks on the skin and face to more serious and even deadly symptoms and long-term health effects:
- Skin rashes
- Trouble breathing
- Increased risk of asthma
- Mental trauma
- Brain cancer
- Gastrointestinal cancers
- Head and neck cancers
- Lymphatic cancers or lymphomas
- Lung cancer and respiratory cancers
- Chronic bronchitis
- Pulmonary fibrosis
- and more
Environmental and Health Effects of Open Burn Pits
Not only do open burn pits affect the people who live nearby—the smoke and ash from a burn facility can contaminate local crops, wooded areas, animals, and the entire environment.
One resident of Colfax keeps bees, which he says “are very sensitive to the environment.” Out of a concern for their health, he keeps his bees as far as possible from the burn site. In the VICE documentary, he states, “Never in my life can I understand how DEQ [Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality] has allowed an open burn facility in an area that has almost pristine wilderness still.”
The situation in Colfax has worsened in the years since Camp Minden—another facility operated by the federal government—shut down. There, the people were able to put up a fight and force the facility to use a closed burn chamber.
However, Minden began sending its hazardous waste material to the Clean Harbors in Colfax, which has only worsened the pollution there. One resident called it “environmental discrimination,” saying, “They get clean air in Minden. We get dirty, polluted air in Colfax. I don’t believe that’s right.”
Even the disposal process itself has disturbed the people nearby the Clean Harbors facility. One veteran of the Iraq war explains that his PTSD is triggered by the explosions from the burns: “Because of the bombs and sound … rattling the trailer. It’s the same feeling, the exact same feeling when I was in Iraq and them bombs went off.”
What Can I Do If I’ve Been Harmed by Exposure to Burn Pit Contamination?
Clean Harbors has been able to avoid major regulative action until now, mostly due to their tight relationships with regulators. On a national level, Clean Harbors has had thousands of violations, but the Louisiana DEQ has one of the lowest rates of enforcement in the country.
Because of this situation, Clean Harbors has been allowed to pollute the countryside and inhabitants of Colfax for decades. In 2022, there is finally some hope for the people of Colfax to end the hazardous emissions coming from the Clean Harbors open burn facility there.
If you live or work near the Clean Harbors Colfax facility and you’ve suffered skin injuries, breathing difficulties, or other side-effects or conditions, you could be eligible for compensation. Call the experienced mass tort lawyers at Gordon McKernan Injury Attorneys for a free consultation today.
The fight against Colfax will be hard. But with a passionate personal injury lawyer from Gordon McKernan Injury Attorneys on your side, you can win the compensation you deserve.
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