Last November, I stood outside a Bristol, Va., apartment complex, watching Erica Nophlin squeeze a few more trash bags into the trunk of her already packed car. For two years, Nophlin and her two young daughters and cousin had regularly smelled noxious fumes from a malfunctioning landfill, both outside and inside their apartment. They experienced headaches, upset stomachs, and throat pain when the pollution was noticeable. By late 2021, Nophlin said, her home was unbearable. She decided to move her family across town.
The story I published with Southerly in December covered the pollution’s impacts on Nophlin’s family and countless other residents in the city and neighboring Bristol, Tenn. It dug into the structural flaws and mismanagement that fueled the crisis, the chemicals detected in the air pollution and community members’ efforts to get relief: organizing a grassroots coalition called HOPE for Bristol, petitioning government agencies, fundraising for air filters, and in some cases, like Nophlin’s, evacuating or moving. Based on conversations with residents, we used the story to show hard evidence of what went wrong and highlight the magnitude of the impacts on residents—all in a way that was accurate and easy to understand.
Southerly is primarily publishing stories online, and much of the community dialogue and information sharing about the air pollution has been happening in a public Facebook group. In a listening session with community members after it published, multiple people told us many of their neighbors—particularly Black residents, elderly, and low-income residents living close to the landfill—don’t have internet access or aren’t on social media. Some of the grassroots leaders said they spend a lot of time just trying to explain what’s happening at the landfill to people who haven’t heard much about it yet, but are feeling the effects of the air pollution.
This is a common problem: A lot of reporting about environmental crises still fails to reach the people who are living them and need that information most. So we worked with a group of community members—diverse in age, race, and location in town—to create a simple brochure to get critical information about the landfill to those who still need it. We used information from our story and some additional reporting to make this guide that includes key facts about what’s happening at the landfill, how it’s affecting residents, and where they can get help or connect with others.
We wouldn’t have been able to produce this guide without a group of community members who shared their ideas and feedback with us. The group included HOPE for Bristol leaders, the Rev. Jackie Nophlin of Household Of Faith Community Church and Rev. Steven L. Davis Sr. of Brothers for Christ Community Response. HOPE contributed photographs and resident George Linke created the complaint map. Kassie Navarro designed the brochure.
Lastly, we’re indebted to the residents who stepped up to share how this crisis has impacted them. Your voices made this work possible. With their help, we’ll be distributing the guide at community events, churches, and other locations. We’ll update this story with information about that process and what it leads to in the coming weeks.
Sarah Wade is a reporter based in Bristol, Tennessee.