Tennessee lawmaker says Virginia needs to do more to fix Bristol landfill’s malodorous emissions

‘Two city councils, two police departments, two fire departments, and, unfortunately, we have one smell’

By: - September 23, 2021 12:03 am

Odors and complaints of sickness from emissions from Bristol, Virginia’s landfill are coming from both sides of the border. (City of Bristol, Va.)

Not satisfied with how Virginia officials are handling the complaints, a Tennessee state senator wants his state agencies to investigate a Bristol, Virginia, landfill linked to air pollution and foul odors plaguing residents on both sides of the border.

“In addition to the landfill causing odor nuisance issues, I believe it presents a health and safety concern for Tennesseans,” state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, wrote in a letter addressed to the Tennessee Department of Health and cc’d to the Department of Environment and Conservation and Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III. “We have a duty to protect the livelihood and health of our Tennessee residents, and we must do more to ensure Virginia resolves this situation.”

Lundberg’s letter, dated Sept. 9 and obtained by the Virginia Mercury, marked the first time a Tennessee elected official has publicly asked the Volunteer State to take action on cross-border air quality problems that have steadily escalated over the past year–and that residents say have hit a “crisis” level.

“Senator Lundberg is just representing his constituents and I can’t blame him for that,” Bristol, Virginia, City Manager Randy Eads said. “I understand everybody wants to get something done as quickly as possible. Really, the only thing that we can do is continue to do what our consultants are telling us to do to correct the issue.”

Bristol is a split city, straddling Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, with the state line cutting straight down its main street. It even crosses the Environmental Protection Agency’s response regions, with the Virginia side falling in EPA Region 3 and the Tennessee side in Region 4. 

The stench emanating from the landfill, which has been a financial headache for city leaders for years,  just north of the state line doesn’t recognize any such boundaries. In the past month, Lundberg said, he’s received more than a dozen messages from constituents on the Tennessee side detailing their misery from the pollution and asking for his help.

“You have one city … and … that one small city has two city councils, two police departments, two fire departments, and, unfortunately, we have one smell,” Lundberg said.

In the letter, Lundberg said that he doesn’t believe Bristol, Virginia, has put enough money into addressing the pollution. He also said he’s not convinced that Virginia public officials have investigated the landfill thoroughly enough to rule out “potential negative health impacts due to long-term exposure” to the pollution.

The senator asked Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercy to have her department “conduct a thorough review at this landfill site in Virginia” in partnership with TDEC. And he asked Attorney General Slatery to “investigate this matter and advise what steps Tennessee can take to compel the Commonwealth of Virginia to take immediate action.”

Like Bristol, the landfill itself is structurally odd. Opened in 1998 and managed by Bristol, Virginia’s Public Works Department, it’s located in an old  limestone quarry — a setup that Ernie Hoch, a Draper Aden Associates engineer who’s been leading a series of repairs at the site, said is “very rare.”

Some Bristolians have reported dealing with foul smells near the landfill (which accepts municipal solid waste and non-hazardous special waste) for years. In late 2020, however, complaints to city and state officials on both sides of the state line began skyrocketing. 

Numerous residents have also reported physical symptoms when the odors are present: burning eyes and throats, headaches, congestion, nausea, even chest tightness and nosebleeds in some cases.

Residents on both sides of the Virginia-Tennessee border are complaining about noxious emissions from Bristol’s landfill on the Virginia side. (Jesi Mink)

“[My kids] sometimes get nauseous, their eyes and throats will sometimes burn [when the smell is present],” said 27-year-old Bristol, Virginia, resident Nichole Thomas, whose house is a five-minute drive from the dump. “The other morning, we had to put our shirts over our noses just [going] from our side door to the car…and my son was like, ‘My chest hurts.’”

In January, Bristol, Virginia, city officials and consultants for the city said that the landfill is generating at least some of the air pollution. Their own air samples from the landfill this year have revealed that it’s belching high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic, putrid-smelling gas known to cause eye and throat irritation, along with high levels of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. 

A class of chemicals present in a slew of industrial and household products, VOCs contribute to the formation of smog in the atmosphere. Some of them carry strong odors; benzene, a volatile organic compound found in vehicle exhaust, fuel, cigarette smoke and numerous other sources, smells like gasoline. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, direct exposure to many VOCs can also cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, while prolonged exposure to some — including benzene — can cause cancer and other serious health problems.

Multiple air samples the city and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality have collected in communities near the landfill over the past year have shown some of the same VOCs detected at the landfill, albeit at much lower levels.

As to why all of those gases are escaping from the landfill’s surface, city officials have cited broken gas pipes, gases escaping from the dump’s surface and excess water — driven, in part, by heavier-than-usual rainfall over the past few years. The quarry’s bowl-shaped structure hasn’t helped.

“Most landfills shed water off. This landfill collects water,” Hoch told city officials and community members at a meeting last week about the landfill.

So far, the city — already saddled with $35 million in debt from the dump — has committed $1.5 million to fixing the site’s structural flaws, hiring more landfill staff and creating a plan to manage the odors. And the repair team has installed new pipes and water pumps, added more cover to the landfill’s top and begun drilling new gas wells in parts of the site that Hoch said currently lack adequate gas capture equipment.

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“Timewise, within six months, we should be saying, ‘Wow, most of the smells are gone,’” Hoch said at the meeting.

Based on residents’ recent complaints, though, the stink still seems rampant. Many people log their experiences with it on a pollution crowdsourcing app called Smell My City. (DEQ and city officials have urged residents to submit complaints using an official form on the Bristol, Virginia, city website.) In recent weeks, the app — which maps entries by rough location — has regularly  swarmed with complaints in the Bristol area.

“Woke up to this awful smell, currently have a headache, eyes burning and kids coughing,” read one entry, logged in the early hours of Sept. 12, on a street just south of the state line.

The repair process has also uncovered even more problems at the site, including unusually high levels of benzene, in the water being pumped out of the landfill and a spot where high temperatures suggest a subsurface reaction. And DEQ has hit the city with two violation notices over the dump: one in February for a string of recordkeeping violations and another, sent in August and newly obtained by the Mercury, for multiple temperature, oxygen level and pressure exceedances at the landfill’s gas wells. Crystal Bazyk, the enforcement and air compliance and monitoring manager for DEQ’s Southwest Regional Office, said the agency is working on a consent order that will address those violations.

The EPA also waded into the case over the summer, collecting six weeks’ worth of air samples in a handful of spots in communities around the landfill. The agency is still finalizing its full assessment of the air sample findings, and said that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency, has begun using the sampling data to hash out an assessment of the pollution’s potential health risks. But an initial EPA report on the data released in July said  that the air sampling data shows “no immediate risk to human health.” 

Odors and complaints of sickness from emissions from Bristol, Virginia’s landfill are coming from both sides of the border. (Nichole Thomas)

Thomas said that the migraines, nausea and other afflictions her family has suffered when the smells are present don’t stack up with that finding.

“Every day, it impacts the citizens and residents who are living here,” said Thomas, who has collected more than 500 signatures for a petition demanding early closure of the landfill. “I am at a desperate point. It’s [either] let my kids’ health suffer or do whatever I can to escape.”

Asked about Lundberg’s letter, Bazyk and Jeff Hurst, who directs DEQ’s Southwest Regional Office, both said that DEQ has already been collaborating with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation for months — and, more recently, Virginia and Tennessee’s health departments, along with federal agencies. 

“We probably need to do a better job of messaging,” Hurst said. “Some of the things being requested in this [letter] — some of [it] has been done, some of [it] is continuing to be done.” 

“TDEC reached out to us in January,” Bazyk said. “They looked at their sources on their side of the state line and we’ve kept in contact periodically through this whole process, and even much more lately.”

In an email statement, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation  official said the agency is reviewing Lundberg’s letter and “continues to be engaged in this issue, including [by] facilitating meetings with local officials and working with our counterparts in both the Tennessee Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.”.A Tennessee Department of Health  spokesperson wrote that they’ve received Lundberg’s letter but deferred  to TDEC, saying the environment agency would look into the senator’s concerns. 

“We are looking into the matter raised in the letter and will respond to the senator at the appropriate time,” Samantha Fisher, the director of communications for Tennessee Attorney General Slatery’s office, said in an email. 

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Sarah Wade
Sarah Wade

Sarah Wade is an award-winning freelance reporter and writer based in Bristol, a city straddling Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. She previously worked for the Bristol Herald Courier. Contact her at [email protected]

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