Bristol Landfill Is “Stink, Stank, Stunk”
Updated: May 4
Residents of the city of Bristol, Virginia, have found a new normal in the worst way. For some, it has been as annoying as a foul odor regularly coming into their homes, but for others, there have been serious negative health implications and uprooting of their lives. The problem? The city’s improperly managed landfill.
The Integrated Solid Waste Management Facility, which began operating in 1998, currently receives around 500 tons of waste a day, not only from Bristol, but also from surrounding cities that truck their waste into the landfill. While it has not always been this bad, the landfill has caused more problems than solutions over the last few years.
The landfill, located in a quarry, and all the problems that followed have led to not only resistance and complaints from citizens, but also petitions, news articles, podcasts, protests and a lawsuit between sister cities. There have also been pages and apps developed to track landfill updates and smells and, most recently, a panel of experts brought in by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to assess the situation and recommend solutions.
Poorly managed from the beginning and set up with a less than efficient draining system, combined with decomposition and overheating, which has led to abnormal gaseous releases that has been a source of the infamous smell, many residents insist they knew there was a problem long before the city acknowledged it.
Richard Osborne, who moved to Bristol, Virginia, in 1987, said he first noticed the smell two years ago but did not initially realize what it was. While he has seemingly been able to avoid any health complications thus far, he stated that property value, which has gone down, and taxes, which have shot up and continue to rise, are a big concern for citizens.
“I think they covered stuff up that should have been fixed a long time ago, then the city drug their feet after they realized they had a problem, hoping it would go away. They didn’t take it seriously until Bristol, Tennessee, decided to sue,” said Osborne. “Now, it’s nearly full and they’re spending millions to go back and fix something they should have done correctly to begin with.”
Osborne, who owns a property on the same road as the landfill, has many times seen one tractor trailer after the other pass by, filled with waste to be dumped.
Jessica Gamble-Street, who moved to Bristol, Virginia, in 2007, lives within a mile and a half of the landfill and works even closer. She explained how things went from bad to worse in 2021.
“I’d suddenly get nauseous, and then a flush, rash will appear on my face, arms, hands. I look like I have a bad sunburn that radiates heat,” stated Street in an email correspondence. “My sinuses bleed every day. Extreme dry eyes that are very sore to the touch. Headaches occur often.”
Street added that not only can her family not enjoy even their own backyard or church, but also all of them, including her dogs, can no longer consume tap water because of the high chlorine levels.
“The only thing that has been done is a significant increase of city taxes on my property,” stated Street. “Residents, like myself, want action. It's not only affecting our homes and livelihood, it's also destroying our health.”
HOPE for Bristol is a non-profit organization born from the community’s need for a group that will recognize that t
he problem is deeper than a bad smell, since the city itself has done little but drag its feet and deflect any responsibility for the state of the landfill to the previous administration.
“To date, HOPE has been successful in sharing information with the public and educating politicians about what’s really going on in Bristol,” said Mike Givney, board and science committee member for HOPE for Bristol. “Not just the glossed over version given by the city’s government.”
The city of Bristol, Virginia, which citizens say has continually let problems in the landfill mount and get increasingly worse, while claiming they are safe and have nothing to worry about, had done little to remedy the situation until February of 2021 when, according to Bristoltn.org, the city of Bristol, Tennessee, served the city of Bristol, Virginia, with an intent to sue for not only violating the Clean Air Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, but also for negligence with the landfill.
The DEQ, the agency that oversees the landfill, brought in a panel of experts on environmental and landfill issues in May to visit the site, hear stories and listen to presentations on every aspect of the landfill. Their recommendations of how to handle the situation came out in late April, stating that many steps would need to be taken towards handling this problem.
Givney, whose life has been turned upside down due to the landfill, as he and his wife were forced from their home into a camper due to living conditions in the house, as well as dealing with headaches, vertigo, nosebleeds, nausea and vomiting, said he and HOPE for Bristol believe if the city actually follows through with the recommendations from the panel, there is a chance the issue is reconcilable.
“Many organizations and the city itself calls this an odor. Although there is an odor, what we are experiencing on a daily basis is more like a chemical exposure,” said Givney. “It is both sad and terrifying at the same time. Unless you have experienced it, you can’t imagine it.”
The expert panel, which stated the landfill’s issues are coming from multiple sources including a compromised side wall, improper rainwater and runoff draining, decomposition and elevated temperatures which are causing chemical gas releases within the waste, and improper gas containment, also suggested some options to address the problems.
Among the proposed solutions were closing the landfill and ceasing all dumping temporarily, if not permanently, as well as capping the landfill with a cap designed specifically for the water drain off that it needs, along with adding more gas wells to help prevent more gases escaping.
“We do not want to leave Bristol, ever. We love our little city and are devastated that we are displaced for this amount of time it will take to fix this landfill,” said Givney. “Unfortunately, they [the city] will have to be watched very closely, because they have a history of not maintaining and making excuses.”