Residents resort to burning storm debris to clear their shores

After record rains flushed a torrent of tree branches and trash into the Chesapeake Bay, residents of Beverly Beach turned to fire to dispose of debris that washed ashore.

Anne Arundel County officials recommended burning the logs and branches after deciding there was too much of it to haul away.

But at least one resident’s complaints about the potential health impacts of burning driftwood led the community to halt the burns while the county health department reviews the matter.

The Beverly Beach Community Association began burning piles of the debris at Beverly Triton Beach Park in Mayo on Aug. 10, a day after Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh and other county representatives visited the beach to assess the damage from flooding and help with clean-up efforts.

After a day of hauling trash and pieces of trees to dumpsters inland, the county recommended that burning would be the best course of action to clear the shoreline, said Owen McEvoy, a spokesman for Schuh, in an email.

The Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works estimated at least four dumpsters would be needed to haul the debris away, McEvoy said.

“Due to the length of the beach and distance to haul it to get to the dumpsters [it] would prove to be extremely labor intensive, not to mention the wear and tear on the grassy area from repeated trailer loads to and from the dumpster,” McEvoy said in an email.

The community association obtained a burn permit from the Anne Arundel County Health Department.

Cliff Ruehle, the health department’s program manager for housing and food protection services, said health department officials conferred with the Maryland Department of the Environment before issuing the permit, which allows for the burning of natural wood, but no tires or trash.

“If some other materials were in those piles while they were gathering it, they have to be removed prior to the fire,” said Sharon Pawlowski, the health department’s program supervisor for housing and food protection services.

Before the burning began, health department officials walked the beach to examine debris piles and remove items such as pretreated wood and polystyrene, which are not allowed to be burned.

“We’re following everything in accordance with the public health department for the county,” Kristen Oxendine, president of the Beverly Beach Community Association, said.

Still, some residents are concerned about the health and environmental impacts of burning driftwood — particularly the potential release of carcinogens.

Jim Doyle, a Beverly Beach resident, complained to the health department and other county officials, and said he plans to seek an injunction against the burns.

“The way they’re burning this debris is criminal because of the toxins that are being released,” Doyle said.

The Environmental Protection Agency warms against burning wet wood and ocean driftwood, which can release carcinogenic toxins when burned from the saltwater it absorbs. The Chesapeake Bay contains brackish water — a mix of freshwater and saltwater.

After Doyle’s complaint, a county environmental health specialist inspected the burn site Thursday and did not find any violations of the burn permit, Pawlowski said. The health department also followed up with the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has not yet ruled against burning the driftwood, she said.

“We don’t have any definitive answer,” Pawlowski said. “At this point there’s no restriction on it.”

Although open burns are typically not allowed in the summer, they are sometimes used to remove debris after storms. The state environment department suggests taking steps to minimize pollution and protect public safety, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the department.

“This includes minimizing smoke, segregating non-natural materials from what is burned, maintaining as much distance as possible from homes and other structures and avoiding burning during windy conditions,” Apperson said..

Residents did not plan to burn any debris Thursday because of high winds, Oxendine said. But she estimated there were still 20 to 30 piles of wood along the beach; only about three had been burned.

Oxendine was working with the county to organize another clean-up day, when she hopes to bring dumpsters back to the beach and rally support from neighbors.

“Our beach does need some help,” she said.

For its part, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation points out that wood debris is part of the natural cycle of bay marshes, though trash and plastic need to be removed to keep it from contaminating the food chain.

“That wood gets recruited onto beaches and marshes and incorporated into the structure,” said Doug Myers, Maryland senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Decomposing wood releases nutrients and allows more water to be stored underground, which is then tapped by beach grasses, which hold sand together and prevent erosion, Myers explained.

“If you didn't have floods like that, that bring wood down,” Myers said, “the erosion you'd see on beaches would be more.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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