Less than a week before Christmas last year, Amber Goins took her children not to see Santa, but to visit their city councilors in Bella Vista, Arkansas. Her two boys stepped up to the podium to make a plea.
“The fire make a lot of people sick,” said her oldest son. “I want it to go out. Everyone want it to go out.”
An underground fire in an unpermitted 5-acre ‘stump dump’ — a dump site containing mostly organic matter like yard waste — on the east side of town had been burning for nearly four months, belching smoke out of the ground near a residential area. The smoke from the pile of tree branches, stumps, tires, and pieces of metal pipe floated down the ravine and wafted into houses through windows, air conditioning vents, and heat pumps. At times, it covered the whole area with a dense layer of smoke that looked like fog settling over the mountains.
Arkansas, like most Southern states, requires anyone operating a disposal site with multiple types of waste to be properly permitted. But in rural communities in the Ozarks and elsewhere around the region, there are few options for the disposal of yard or construction waste, which don’t fall under standard trash or recycling. Illegal dumping sites are common: one person leaves debris in a ravine, some of her neighbors follow, and it snowballs from there.
Because most regulated landfills in the U.S. have systems to remove methane, they rarely have serious fires, said Ronald Mersky, who studies waste management and is the chair of the civil engineering department at Widener University. “This shouldn’t happen in a well-managed landfill,” Mersky said.
Fires in piles of organic matter are more common — and should be predictable, said Tony Sperling, a landfill design specialist. Sites with a high concentration of organic material are prime ground for fires to start. As matter decomposes, it releases gases like methane. When exposed to high temperatures or an open flame, the gases can catch fire and spread quickly.
“It’s almost a no-brainer that a huge pile of organic matter, sooner or later, is going to catch on fire,” he said.
Some states, including Kentucky and North Carolina, are trying to remediate and close illegal dumps and landfills in operation prior to regulation. Arkansas has a program where people can be trained to become a “licensed environmental officer” to inspect and cite suspected illegal dump sites.
But it’s often unclear who is responsible for management and cleanup — or even what the best approach is. Sperling referenced a 2006 fire in a massive mulch pile in Helotes, Texas, that burned for three months in part because of disagreements over who was in charge of extinguishing it.
It took nearly a year to put out the Arkansas fire, exposing ongoing gaps in local and state governments’ ability to address this type of environmental health crisis. “There were so many entities that could have been involved that nothing was getting done,” said Dylan Shaddox, a Bella Vista resident who ran unsuccessfully for city council in fall 2018 as the fire smoldered. “It was just avoided like the plague because nobody wanted to take responsibility for it.”
Bella Vista is a town of about 28,000 people, many of whom are elderly and retired. The local government, the local Property Owners Association (POA), and the town’s original developer each hold considerable political sway; the property owners association functioned as its de facto government until 2007, and still controls the water utility, lakes, golf courses, and many parks. In the last few decades, especially in the South, it’s become more common for private homeowner or property owners associations across the country to perform governmental functions.
For more than a decade, the association leased the dump land from a local storage company, operating and monitoring it the unpermitted site. It advertised the dump to dues-paying members as an amenity. In 2008, state environmental regulators visited the site when someone complained that a concrete company disposed of old mixing drums nearby, but didn’t address the permitting issue.
Last year, the property changed hands to a tree service company, further complicating who was responsible for management. The city fire department said a large brush fire was the cause, but the organizations and agencies that might have been held responsible lacked resources to take it on. After the city found out about the blaze, its website stated, “We WILL NOT risk the lives of our firefighters when the best thing for this fire is to let it burn itself out.” Then it published what it called “cool drone footage” showing smoke pouring out of a mountain of decomposing wood, billowing into the forest.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality spent months investigating the environmental impact of the fire without moving to a solution. Since the materials had not been compacted, air pockets throughout the 60-foot deep dump fed the flames, according to an EPA report. State regulators said it couldn’t be extinguished with water because runoff could carry pollutants or toxins into the local water supply. (The ADEQ declined to comment for this article).
Linda Lloyd, a member of the Bella Vista City Council, said the council’s hands were tied because the state wasn’t communicating with the city. “The state wasn’t even telling us when they were coming into Bella Vista,” she said. “When we weren’t in the loop as far as what was happening, there wasn’t much that we could tell people.”
With government agencies slow to respond, several residents took it upon themselves to pressure government and property owners association into action. They urged state and federal regulators to request more air and water quality testing data; EPA tests showed no hazardous levels of organic compounds, but cautioned about inflated levels of benzene, a chemical known to cause headaches, dizziness, tissue injuries, and, with long-term exposure, potentially anemia and cancer.
The volunteers also organized a community meeting and handed out 700 flyers around the city about the fire and smoke exposure. The fire slowly started to gain more attention. Regulators issued a health alert, and later an emergency order saying they found a “hazardous substance” at the dump and that benzene emissions could pose a health risk to some nearby residents. In early January, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson declared a state of emergency.
But the fire burned for five more months.
Depending on the day and wind direction, people living nearby couldn’t go outside without smelling smoke. Some stopped letting their children play outside; others evacuated. Young and eldery people had breathing problems. Many of the air quality tests conducted by state and federal agencies showed conditions were likely unhealthy for people whose health was already poor. When non-organic matter burns, it releases particulate matter, microscopic particles in the air that can lodge in people’s throats and make it difficult to breathe. Long-term smoke exposure can cause an increased risk of asthma.
“There were days I would walk outside, my eyes would sting, and I could smell it,” said Marla Barina, a Bella Vista resident who lives just over two miles from the dump.
Goin’s family went to her brother’s house because of high smoke level readings near their home. When two of her sons were diagnosed with severe asthma, the family left Arkansas. “The rug is ripped out from under you, and on top of that you’re sick. It’s making you physically sick,” she said. They couch-hopped for months, living in Louisiana and Massachusetts before moving back to Arkansas — though not to Bella Vista — last month. She said her sons’ asthma attacks stopped as soon as they moved away.
While the community dealt with health effects, state regulators released a plan of action and some work to put out the fire began, which lawmakers allocated $20 million for. But that money wasn’t free: it would have to be recouped from organizations deemed “ responsible parties,” likely including the property owners association. (State senator Jim Hendren, who sponsored the bill, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
When Tom Judson, the property owners association’s president, saw that number, he said he decided to take responsibility for putting it out. It had been nearly a year since the fire started. A month after his organization took over, it was extinguished. He said the final cost was $4 million — a fraction of the initial estimate, but an amount that will almost wipe out their funds.
Active and abandoned unpermitted dumps are all across the South — there are at least seven in Bella Vista alone, by residents’ count, including one more operated by the property owners association (the city says it is only aware of three dump sites total). There are ways to test whether these dumps are at risk of fire, said Sperling, the landfill design specialist, like if the surface temperature spikes, or if certain gases start emitting from the dump. Rather than piling organic waste all in one place over a long period of time, he said, it’s better to grind it into mulch or compost, or burn waste as it’s produced. Dumping it is “a cheap short-term solution that causes a lot of long-term problems,” he said.
Experts and residents say the difficulty in putting out this fire points to a need for a clearer, and faster, response method if another fire happens — especially at a dump with higher concentrations of potentially hazardous materials. A Bella Vista spokesperson said they have a plan to address other incidents like this, but “responding to environmental issues is within the purview of the state, not the city.”
Some people worry a similar situation might happen again. “It was 17 years of negligence having that dump unregulated, unlicensed,” Goin said. “I’ve seen cities come together after big storms or natural disasters, I’ve seen what can be done. It was a huge failure on the part of everyone at fault here.”
CORRECTION: The city of Bella Vista says it is only aware of three unpermitted dump sites, but more could exist.
Top photo: The site of the Trafalgar Fire at an illegal dump in Bella Vista, Arkansas that burned for nearly a year. Credit: Bella Vista Property Owners Association
Olivia Paschal is a journalist and writer from Arkansas. She is based in Durham, North Carolina.