An underground fire beneath an illegal garbage dump site in Arkansas is still smoldering more than 7 months after local residents noticed the fire, and it will cost tens of millions of dollars to extinguish it. In the meantime, noxious smoke is seeping into local homes, spurring fears that the toxins may cause long-term health problems.
The health effects have already become noticeable. Chris Nelson, 40, lives with his wife and 4-year-old son in a house nestled just over 1000 feet from the dumping site. A persistent cough has plagued the family since the fire started, his wife has been diagnosed with bronchitis, and his little boy has been on multiple rounds of antibiotics.
“I’m a veteran and this is probably one of the worst, most stressful situations to live in. It’s been hell.”
The air around the site is being monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). Most of the readings have come back at “good” or “moderate” levels. However, in December, the EPA registered an “unhealthy” reading, which prompted the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) to issue a health alert, warning locals to “avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors,” including “running, playing, or yard work.”
In the town of Bella Vista, population 28,500, residents have questions they are waiting on the government to answer, namely, how and why the illegal dumping site was able to operate without a state license for several years. No one knows how the fire started, though city officials believe a small brush fire ignited debris underground.
The former and current owners of the 4.75-acre site, as well as the Bella Vista Property Owners Association, which shuttered the dump in 2016 before the owner sold it to a tree trimming and disposal service early last year, are facing at least 2 lawsuits filed by local residents.
Starting in January 2004, the association began leasing the site from the storage company that owned it. With the association’s blessing, residents started dumping brush, wood, and other organic materials at the site.
According to the state, the area never should have been operating as a dump of any kind. Nevertheless, residents started dumping non-organic items such as car batteries, wiring, and swimming pool liners, state inspectors and contractors say.
In 2008, an inspector visited the site after receiving a complaint about cement mixer drums from Bella Vista’s developer being dumped there. The mixers were removed and it’s unclear why they were left there in the first place.
In July 2018, residents spotted what they thought was a brush fire and reported the smoke to the state. Inspectors visited the site in early August and ADEQ sent warning letters to the current and former owners. But it wasn’t until November that the state and the federal government began monitoring air quality in the area, and that was only after respiratory problems popped up among residents, who also expressed concern over reduced property values.
In January, state officials and contractors started preparing to clean up the site, but doing so is more complicated than simply dumping water on it, department spokeswoman Donnally Davis explained. Even if officials flooded the site, small fires could continue to burn, and runoff could contaminate a nearby lake or seep into the groundwater.
Davis estimates it will cost between $15 million and $37 million to extinguish the blaze and clean up the waste. State lawmakers are considering a $20 million appropriation to help. State Sen. Jim Hendren, a Republican whose district includes Bella Vista, said he anticipates the bill will “move fairly quickly” through the Legislature.
U.S. Republican U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton and U.S. Rep. Steve Womack wrote to the EPA in late February asking for “any and all options from which the state may receive financial assistance.”
Locals say they just want to be able to breathe clean air again.
“People need help. It’s been going on for 7 months and it doesn’t look like there’s an end in sight any time soon.”
 Associated Press
Featured image source: (C. Nelson/Apex Visual Solutions via AP)