By: Andrea Need, Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs
This semester I interrupted my planned class (lecture, case discussion, and hypotheticals) with a simple mini case study exercise “ripped from the headlines” in our midwestern town.
Background: By class time, most students had heard the news that the City of Bloomington, IN had conducted a controlled live burn of a two-story house in a neighborhood not far from campus. Such fire training burns are allowed, subject to conditions, as exceptions to state open burning prohibitions. Local news reported that immediately after the burn, neighbors complained of debris, including paint chips, on their houses and cars and in their yards and gardens. A resident’s test showed lead in the debris, which was later confirmed by the city.
Exercise: Do we need to change the law after the controlled burn event? (25-30 minutes)
- (10 minutes) First, I asked the students to read a news report and a city press release, which I linked on our course page for easy access. I picked these two documents because they covered the background, discussed relevant laws, and could be read quickly.
- I told the students to assume whatever these documents stated was true. For example, the press release stated that the city sought proper approval and complied with the state open burning law, which does not require lead testing.
- (5 minutes) I instructed students that once they were done reading, they were to break into small groups of three to five students each and discuss and write down any problems resulting from this event.
- (5 minutes) We discussed the problems as a class and I wrote them on the board. Some problems were as follows:
- Is there lead contamination—particularly in gardens and where children play?
- Should lead testing be required prior to burning? Is accurate lead testing possible? Should we assume all buildings older than a certain year have lead paint?
- Even if no lead was present, the city caused ash to fall on people’s property.
- Is the required notice adequate or equitable (i.e., accessible)? What could a person do if they got notice and were concerned?
- Will the debris be removed and by whom? If so, how much will removing the debris cost?
- Should these burns occur farther from homes?
- Do firefighters need these opportunities to practice? Would too many testing or other requirements eliminate the training opportunities?
- (5 minutes) Next, I asked if, based on what we know, the law needs to be changed and if so, how? At what level of government should the law be changed (state vs. local)? Or, I asked, was the law sufficient as-is, and was this an instance of a decision-making error? The class agreed the law needed to be amended because the burn was lawful but still problematic. Students shared ideas on changes to the law, which I wrote on the board. Some ideas were to:
- require lead testing prior to burning;
- prohibit burning structures built before lead paint was banned;
- require individual notice to all property owners within [xx distance determined by data collected on the impacted zone;
- prohibit burning within a certain distance of residences; and
- require a study on, and publication of, the costs of potential remediation.
- (5 minutes) Finally, looking at the ideas on the board, I asked students to pick which one or two were the most important changes to the law and to explain why. Also, we discussed which problems that the students originally identified (in step 3) were addressed by the changes, and which remained.
- As a result of our discussion, the students chose to require lead testing (if the building was built before a certain year, to be established based on the lead paint ban) and to require additional individual notice. The students rejected banning training burns altogether, or in certain areas because they did not know how important the training is for firefighters.
- We acknowledged that actual legislative proposals would require research and much more detail.
Future Semesters: I plan to use this sort of mini case study again because: 1) adding something new to my usual in-class exercises livened up class, particularly later in the semester when enthusiasm was waning; 2) using a local legal issue meant the situation was easily understood and relatable for students; and 3) students were encouraged to think about tradeoffs in policy-making through the law. Several students approached me after class to tell me how much they enjoyed the exercise.
The next time I do this exercise, I will consider providing the open burning regulation and asking the students to markup amendments to the regulation. At the end of future exercises, I will share the city’s ultimate conclusion that “no similar live-fire training should be conducted in the future.” I will ask if this outcome satisfies the students.
You could expand this exercise by requiring research on other states’ open burning laws, the effectiveness of lead paint testing, firefighting training needs, etc., and then having groups of students present their proposals.
Applicability to Other Courses: I used this exercise in a public law course for graduate students pursuing their Master of Public Affairs. You could use this mini case study in a class on legislative drafting, environmental law or policy, or state and local government law. You could also modify the idea by keeping an eye out for a local news story covering the subject matter of your course, providing a bit more reading material on the topic or the relevant law, and asking the students the same sorts of questions.
 The burn and its aftermath are described in a series of press releases issued in November and December 2021, which can be found at https://bloomington.in.gov/news/2021. Only the first few press releases were available on class day.
 The contractor hired by the city determined that visible paint chips deposited were lead-based paint, but air samples exhibited no detection of lead, surface dust readings showed “non-excessive levels of lead dust contamination,” surface soil samples were below the lead action level, and leaf litter exhibited no lead detection. https://bloomington.in.gov/news/2021/12/13/5049.
 Press release: https://bloomington.in.gov/news/2021/11/10/5016; news story: https://fox59.com/news/residents-concerned-after-controlled-burn-exercise-in-bloomington-may-have-resulted-in-contaminated-ash-debris/.
 Here is the state approval: https://bloomington.in.gov/sites/default/files/2021-11/83218318.pdf.
 The regulations implementing the open burning exemptions are found at 326 IAC 4-1-3. Live fire training is addressed at 326 IAC 4-1-3(c)(9). Note that the press release cited in endnote 3 includes a map of affected properties. The affected properties’ distance from the burn site is particularly interesting in light of the notice requirements in 326 IAC 4-1-3(c)(9)(B).