Residents of Bristol, Va., and its sister city of Bristol, Tenn., have pushed local officials for months to close a landfill leaking foul-smelling air pollution that causes them to feel sick when they smell the fumes: nausea, headaches, sinus problems, and nose bleeds, among other symptoms. 

In April, a panel of landfill engineering experts convened by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VDEQ) recommended the city “strongly consider” closing the landfill and taking a slew of other corrective actions. Bristol, Tenn., sued its sister city the following month for alleged violations of federal environmental laws and creating a public nuisance. 

This month, a federal court ordered Bristol, Va., to plan for the landfill’s permanent closure, pay its sister city, and follow the panel’s suggested steps to fix the problems. On Tuesday, the Bristol Virginia City Council unanimously approved the terms of the order, with a plan for closure by Sept. 12.

“Seeing that the panel made such a serious assessment of the landfill and really did come together with conclusions that were very similar to what we’d been advocating for—I think that that was a real relief for us,” said Becky Evenden, the secretary of HOPE for Bristol, a grassroots organization advocating for relief for residents.

Although the city has spent more than a year on repairs and upgrades to the landfill, the site—which sits in a former limestone quarry—continues leaking noxious and toxic fumes like benzene and hydrogen sulfide into the air. 

Eleven landfill management experts—including researchers and consultants—met in Bristol in March to inspect the site and recommend solutions. Their resulting report stated that a chemical reaction deep inside the waste is driving the pollution and could worsen if the city doesn’t take immediate action. While most of the fumes are likely escaping from gaps between the landfill’s walls and protective liner, gasses could also be leaking through insufficient soil cover on top.

The panel recommended remediations including improvements to the landfill’s gas collection system and a temporary “geomembrane cover” to essentially shrinkwrap the surface. 

But they said it’s not feasible to do that work unless the landfill ceases normal operations, and urged the city to close the site. They also recommended a “community outreach program” to enable effective communication with the public.

For months, residents have called for  the landfill’s closure, or at least more transparency and communication from the city about the situation. 

The court order attaches hard deadlines to the panel’s suggestions. According to a stipulation filed June 14 in the U.S. District Court in Abingdon, Bristol, Va., must send its Tennessee counterpart a plan for meeting all of the recommendations, including permanent closure, within 30 days; stop accepting trash at the landfill within 90 days; and install new equipment for mitigating fumes around the perimeter within a year. 

The city must also pay Bristol, Tenn., $250,000 for lawsuit-related expenses by mid-July. The latter city called the agreement a “significant victory” but left the lawsuit open.

“Implementing VDEQ’s recommendations in the report will satisfy Bristol, Tennessee’s chief concerns laid out in their suit and proposals,” Bristol Virginia City Manager and City Attorney Randy Eads said in a statement shared with media outlets. “Because of this, and in hopes of avoiding additional, unnecessary litigation, Bristol, Virginia, agrees to Bristol, Tennessee’s proposal.”

Joel Kellogg hands out the brochure at a city council meeting. (Photo courtesy HOPE for Bristol)

Evenden said she’s “really glad” to see the Virginia city’s commitment, but added that HOPE will be “watching carefully” to hold the city accountable for remediations that she fears could take years. Although the city asked DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for additional funding for the landfill, Evenden said it’s still unclear what the total bill will be and who will foot the bulk of it.

In the meantime, complaints about the fumes and their impacts on people keep rolling in. Since Feb. 1, locals have logged nearly 6,300 total complaints with the city of Bristol, Va., VDEQ and pollution tracking app Smell My City; that doesn’t include complaints shared in a community Facebook group

Southerly previously documented the pollution’s toll on residents and other key details about the landfill in an investigation and a guide created in partnership with HOPE for Bristol and other community leaders.

HOPE president Joel Kellogg said that after a mild respite in March and April, the smell is intense again in his Bristol, Tenn., neighborhood and others throughout the area. He experiences headaches and brain fog on bad nights and mornings—often enough that he calls it “landfill hangover.”

“It’s not a good situation,” Kellogg said. “This is an amazing community and that’s why we’re working so hard to save it, and a lot of people are. But it’s going to get worse, unfortunately, before it gets better.” 

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.