DennisBeaverJanuary 20, 2007 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Weott is a small town located in one of the most beautiful parts of Northern California, 45 miles south of Eureka, right off of Highway 101 in Humboldt County. “We’ve got wonderfully clean air filtered by 2,000 year old Redwood trees — it is simply beautiful,” Phyllis (not her real name) wrote in an e-mail which also spoke of trouble in this little paradise. 

For several of the families who live on Madrone Drive — her family included — Weott has become the site of a neighborhood war, “…caused by one resident who burns household garbage in her wood burning stove. We can smell all sorts of toxic things, such as plastic, and the black smoke pouring out of her chimney is horrible. It is a shame to have to breathe the pollution she is causing.”

After speaking with other neighbors on the same street, I couldn’t help but think of the Andy Griffith show and Mayberry, that mythical town and its friendly Sheriff. It was Sheriff Andy Griffith who amicably kept the peace, but based upon what I have learned, Weott has been cursed far too long with local law enforcement who would rather just wring their hands instead of taking action. Here are the facts of this story as I have been able to determine, and we begin with a look at air pollution in general, and what the law says about burning residential garbage.

Limited Right To Burn Trash at Home

Before 1970, in just about every city in California, at about 5 p.m. you could look out your window and see plumes of smoke wafting up into the air — smoke from backyard incinerators. “Take out the garbage and burn it,” were orders given to hundreds of thousands of kids home from school. In those days, prior to much in the way of trash collection, everyone burned garbage. But as air pollution in metropolitan California cities — noticed as early as 1943 — grew worse, backyard burning was outlawed in a large part of the state in 1970.

As of January, 2004, the burning of most household waste was made illegal. Some things may still be burned at home, but the list isn’t very long. If the county permits, vegetation grown on your property may be burned, but not glossy paper, garbage, plastic, paint, rubber, cotton, wool, petroleum products, or toxic smoke producing items. “Most household garbage cannot be legally burned at home, plain and simple,” is the way several enforcement officers I spoke with put it.

Quit Smoking!

Following receipt of Phyllis’s e-mail, I spoke with Garianne Dashiell, whose home — among others — is directly impacted by the plume of smoke from this uncaring neighbor who I will call B.O.

“The burning of trash has gone on for a very long time, and I have spoken with the North Coast Air Quality Management District, who sent her a letter advising that what she is doing creates a nuisance. But that was all they did, and the burning continued. Both orally and in writing I offered to supply her with trash bags and take them myself to the dump. I also left her a supply of Hefty Bags. She returned the bags, with an unbelievable response.”

Unbelievable indeed! Instead of addressing the real issues — burning trash and becoming a nuisance to other neighbors — B.O.’s handwritten reply (and I have a copy) read in part, “It is a proven fact that second hand smoke kills. I have had to close my front door and house windows because I smell cigarette smoke coming from your front yard. Maybe you should quit smoking outside.”

In rejecting the offer of help, B.O. wrote something very interesting. “I might be poor but I am not needy.” That one line could be of real legal significance if this matter makes it into court, and I’ll tell you why in a moment.

Anybody Got Some Monitoring Equipment??

Despite the fact that residents had complained to the appropriate local agencies — the Sheriff’s Office, Forestry Department, and to the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District — as of the writing of this story, B.O. seems to have made a fool of everyone and continues to burn all kinds of trash.

The Management District was nice enough to send Our Lady of the Eternal Flame (as Garianne Dashiell refers to her) a letter urging that she obey the law. But that was all that happened until You and the Law was contacted by Phyllis and we began making a few phone calls, and I am glad to report, upsetting an apple cart or two.

While initially, I had the distinct impression that the Management District was completely unwilling to take the kind of action law permits — on the shaky basis that B.O. can get away with violating the law by burning garbage inside her house — I changed my opinion after learning a couple of things.

Believe it or not, the Air Quality Management District didn’t have monitoring equipment that would let them test the smoke coming out of B.O.’s fireplace! This is like a Fire Department without fire trucks, the police with no guns or bullets to put in them. That is why nobody did anything. I was told by Richard Martin, the new head of that Department.

No joke, at least as of late December/early January, they did not have the equipment to test air samples! They rely on visual examinations of smoke, and yearly attend refresher classes. (Let’s hope no one there is color blind!)

If you accept the logic behind what one of their employees told me, “Gosh, it’s inside and we just can’t do anything,” then you can get around California law by conducting prohibited burning inside your house or business. We’ll call it the Humboldt Rule.

To be perfectly fair, the folks at the District now appear to be moving in the right direction. Slowly, but I get the impression that they now take this seriously. At all times their staff members have been willing to talk with me, but in part I suspect they suffer from a lack of resources.

In late December, 2006, I decided to speak with B.O. “I’m not burning my garbage at home. In fact, I have garbage cans at home and they are full of garbage. Well, once I accidentally threw a shoe in my fireplace one time, but that’s all.”
When I asked her about the letter and Garianne’s offer to take her trash to the dump, and the package of Hefty bags which she returned along with her handwritten note, B.O. became much more interesting to me. I could see her on the witness stand. She denied writing the note.

But then she said something that would deeply wound her credibility on the stand. I might be poor, but I am not needy. Those were the same words in the handwritten note!

I’ll let you know what I hear — or see via smoke signals.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.