Thousands of Virginians Have Faced Years of Sickness-Inducing Landfill Pollution

Erica Nophlin woke one morning with a sore stomach, as she has for the past two years. She checked on her two young daughters and her cousin, who both had the same symptoms. The girls suffered from headaches, upset stomachs and throat pains. “It’s like almost every single night,” said Nophlin, a 37-year-old with shoulder-length black curls.

The four lived in an apartment building in Bristol, Va. until November. It was a half-mile away from a city-owned landfill located in an old quarry that has been emitted toxic fumes including hydrogen sulfide and volatile organic compounds. Nophlin was greeted by the fumes outside her church as she went about her daily errands. They prevented the girls from playing in the colorful playground outside her apartment. They swarmed into the apartment, taking sleep and appetites.

Nophlin’s situation is not unique. The polluted air from the landfill has intensified and spread over the past year. Residents have reported severe headaches, nausea and burning eyes and throats as well as nosebleeds and other symptoms. A Facebook group in the area has more than 3,000 members and is bursting with stories: One resident reported chest pain and difficulty breathing. A U.S. Army veteran wears a gas mask to sleep. A mother watches her newborn “[wake] up all [through] the night gagging and coughing.” People regularly leave their homes in the middle of the nightEscape or end up calling in sickTo work.

Nophlin often took the girls to urgent medical care. Nophlin said that doctors usually told her it was an upper-respiratory infection. But no medicine — allergy or antibiotics — helped. “It’s day after day after day,” she said, her hand chopping with each repetition, “your children telling you how bad their head’s hurting and their throat’s hurting…. This is just out of hand.”

Nearly 2,500 complaints were submitted via an online reporting system that the city launched in May. This is on top of more than 6,000 submitted to it. Smell My CitySince January, the app has been tracking pollution. Residents have created a grassroots advocacy organization, HOPE For Bristol, and organized town halls. One young woman even got in touch with environmental activist Erin Brokovich.

Officials are trying identify and fix the problem. Bristol, Va., city staff and consultants have been repairing and expanding the landfill’s infrastructure for 10 months to better capture emissions. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has investigated the landfill and issued three notices of violation regarding recordkeeping and gas well issues. Two rounds of air sampling were conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in communities surrounding the landfill. Bristol, Tenn. sits just above the state line, shares its main street with Bristol, Va., and is currently awaiting a report from a toxicologist hired to assess the situation in the event of litigation.

“I think we’re taking the right steps to correct the problem,” Bristol, Va., City Manager and City Attorney Randy Eads told SoutherlyIt was in November. “It’s not going as fast as I’d like to go, it’s not going as fast as I know the community wants for it to go, but it is moving in the right direction.”

Recordkeeping errors and a contract error have caused major delays in repairs. A chemical reaction has formed beneath the trash. Residents claim that the city, state and federal agencies meant to protect them refuses to recognize the emergency situation as it has become.

Deep inside the Trash

The landfillThe e-waste facility accepts commercial and household waste, tires, yard waste, and brush. It is located just north of the Virginia state line, near a juvenile detention centre and several low-income neighborhoods. Residents of both Bristols voiced concerns about its potential to pollute their communities — and, in some cases, petitioned against it — before the city opened it in 1998. It’s the only permitted landfill in Virginia built in a former quarry (picture a misshapen, round-shouldered rock bowl) and has generated more than $30 million in debtA financially struggling municipality.

Multiple Bristolians living on both sides said they first noticed foul-smelling polluting in their communities up to five years back. But it began intensifying in 2019 before snowballing throughout 2020.

In January 2021, the city began repairing structural flaws causing gases to leak from the landfill’s surface. A crew installed a new pump to suction water pooling at the bottom of the quarry, packed more dirt onto the landfill’s surface, and fixed broken pipes that collect methane and other gas generated by decomposition. They’re also installing 21 additional gas wells to transport the gas to a flare that burns it off into the atmosphere or an engine that a company uses to generate electricity.

According to records obtained from, however, the gas system expansion is still overdue. This is due to poor communication between consultants and city staff. SoutherlyInterviews with city officials

SCS Engineers, an engineering firm, has been understaffed since January 2020. contractThe city will monitor and report on temperatures and other key data from gas wells. Temperatures in several wells reached the maximum limit multiple times during the year, beginning in July. But, in a violation notice obtained through a public records request, state environmental regulators said the city falsely reported having no excessive temperatures during 2020 — and it did nothing to expand the dump’s gas collection system, a step the site’s permit required for two of the violations.

Multiple requests for comment were not answered by SCS Engineers. Eads the city manager stated that the city bears the ultimate responsibility for the failures and fired a staff member who was supposed to review the reporting before submitting it. The city manager added that the city is “still investigating” the recordkeeping failures.

The gas wells that began overheating last year have since become the location of a chemical reaction that’s continued heating the trash — in one well, to temperatures close to 200 degrees — while belching harmful gases and chemicals. Ernie Hoch, a consultant for Richmond-based firm Draper Aden who is leading the repairs, said that the issue is happening more than 100 feet under the surface, and it’s unclear how large it could be.

In April and May, air sampling was done over the city’s reaction area. high levels of hydrogen sulfide — a poisonous gas generated by waste decomposition — carbon monoxide, and volatile organic compounds including benzene, a known carcinogen. EPA testing conducted in June and July in surrounding communities detected those substances at lower levels, which the agency said posed “no immediate risk to human health.” The EPA collected a second round of air samples in October in response to residents’ reports that the “odors had increased in frequency and intensity,” said Myles Bartos, a federal on-scene coordinator for EPA Region 3.

Bartos said that the October data — which he’s still finalizing for a report—showed some higher peaks in chemical levels than the summer air samples, but still no data that shows “an immediate health concern.”

Hoch has repeatedly said that the reaction isn’t a fire — which Virginia law requires landfills to extinguish—and instead calls it a “subsurface reaction.”

“It’s not a fire,” he told Southerly. “It’s not going to burn the neighborhood down, it’s not going to scorch the children in the street. Yes, it’s serious and we’re trying to eliminate it. This has really become the emotional buzzword, but…it’s not an imminent threat to anybody in the community.”

Even if it were a fire, Hoch said, “you can’t put it out. You can’t send a fire department to respond to it. There’s nothing you can do other than what we’re doing.”

Tony Sperling was the president and chief engineer of Vancouver consulting firm Sperling Hansen Associates. He is an expert in landfill fires and was concerned about this. SoutherlyHe showed him data from the wells. Sperling said it sounded like a “self-sustaining subsurface exothermic reaction,” or pyrolysis — a breakdown of organic materials that occurs with elevated temperatures but little to no oxygen.

“You can smother a fire by turning off the oxygen. You cannot turn off an exothermic reaction,” he said. “There have been probably five or six of these incidents in North America. Once they’re going, we literally do not know how to turn them off.”

Similar subsurface reactions have been observed beneath the surface of closed doors. Bridgeton, Mo., landfillSince 2010. “It struck me that there were a lot of similarities,” said Becky Evenden, a chemical engineer by training who lives in Bristol, Tenn. and co-founded HOPE for Bristol. “They both were in quarries. Both had amazing problems with water. They both became very odorous.”

People who lived and worked near the Bridgeton dump reported respiratory issues, headaches and burning eyes. In 2013, a former Missouri attorney general sued the landfill’s owner for alleged environmental violations; the company settled for $16 million in 2018.

Sperling — who was retained by the attorney general’s office as an expert in that case — said he was “really concerned” for Bristol residents because of the health impacts he’s seen in communities around landfills with subsurface reactions.

Todd Thalhamer, Senior Waste Management Engineer for the California EPA, and a consultant who also evaluated the Bridgeton reaction, said he thought the Bristol landfill’s hotspot could be either pyrolysis or a fire, but doesn’t see a difference. He said that the impacts are the same. He said that for every 18 degrees Fahrenheit increase in temperature of solid waste, the production rate of volatile organic compounds such as benzene doubles.

Both Sperling and Thalhamer also said they wouldn’t be surprised if the reaction were generating dioxins and furans, another class of toxic chemicals that can, depending on a person’s amount of exposure, cause health impacts such as skin disorders and immune system impairment. There hasn’t been any testing for those at the site.

Sperling said his own course of action in Bristol would be to “drill like crazy,” since subsurface reactions typically generate “massive pressure” that needs to be relieved. Between the discovery of the reaction’s existence and the beginning of drilling for the gas well, it took four months.

Eads told Southerly that because SCS Engineers’ contract applied only to the landfill’s 44 existing gas wells, the city had to solicit bids for another contractor to expand the gas well system, he said. Eads claimed that shortly after the city accepted a bid form a Louisiana-based company in August he was informed by the city that the company would be expanding the gas well system. bidInadvertently, a crucial step was missed: connecting the wells with the existing gas collection system.

To get to that point, the city had to go through yet another round of bidding and purchasing hoops. Eads said he was “not happy” about that and said that “in the future, it’s going to be done in one contract.”

Evenden stated that she wondered if the city would have acted sooner to address the subsurface reaction. Would the community be less affected? Based on her research of other subsurface reactions, she said she’s concerned the pollution in Bristol “could be with us for years. I hope it’s not really bad for many years, but it could be.”

Eads said he’s hopeful that the latest round of repairs will start containing most of the gases escaping from the landfill’s surface within the next two months. But he stressed that that’s a hope, not a certainty.

“What if what we’re doing now doesn’t work? What if it gets worse?” he said. “Those are the things that I truly lose sleep over.”

He asked for patience. “I know it’s hard to say that and hard to be patient when you have to smell that landfill every single night or every morning when you get up,” he said. “I fully get that. But we have to complete this project. And if this project doesn’t fix it, we go on to Plan B.”

“This Is an Emergency”

Michael Dean, a tall, burly, redhead who co-founded HOPE has been one of the most vocal activists within the community. The Bristol resident, Tenn., resident regularly drives to search for gases at night. He solicits reports and streams what he finds. Bristol City-VA/TN Air Pollution Community Page.

Dean and his family moved to the area to enjoy “small-town vibes” and outdoor beauty, he said. The 41-year old is unable to unpack his new home because it smells like gas almost every night. This causes headaches, sinus trouble and insomnia for the family, as well as nosebleeds for one of his children.

Mid-October saw the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry(ASTDR), a federal public agency within the Department of Health and Human Services agree to assess the possible health risks from pollution. A resident requested it six years ago and HOPE for Bristol was pushing for the same.

HOPE and others realized that the community needed urgent assistance.

They emailed ATSDR to request an evacuation location and vouchers. The agency’s Region 3 director, Lora Werner, replied that the agency had “not seen monitored levels of chemicals in the air that would trigger evacuation or shelter in place actions.”

They called the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which told them to contact their local director of emergency management — in their case, Eads. At a packed meeting of the city council on Nov. 9, they asked Eads and Bristol Va. Mayor Anthony Farnum to declare an emergency.

“This is an emergency and I am here to plead with this council to see this situation for what it truly is,” the Reverend Samuel Weddington, the lead pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Tennessee, said to the council. “Many of the residents of Bristol are living under the nightly threat of this reality of being gassed in their homes. It is a severe burden and they need help to deal with their present suffering and hardship.” (Disclosure – The author attends First Presbyterian Church, and knows Weddington.

Eads said that the city plans to hire a third consultant, one he said will assess how adequately they’ve handled the landfill “crisis.” But he didn’t declare an emergency. The city manager stated that he and Mike Armstrong, the fire chief, discussed the matter with the state emergency management department.

“And the Virginia Department of Emergency Management does not believe that this rises to a level of an emergency, because the EPA has advised the city and the citizens that there is no immediate impact to the health,” he told the public that night.

Tim Estes, chief regional coordinator for VDEM’s Region Four, told Southerly that if the city did declare an emergency, VDEM can only help them try to find supplies — not pay for them. During a July city council meeting, when asked if the city would reimburse people for the air filters and purifiers they’ve been buying to try to make the air in their homes more bearable, Eads said that would be “an admission of liability.”

HOPE for Bristol, a few private donors and an alliance of local pastors raised enough money to buy more than 100 air purifiers. Bristol, Tenn. also offers purifiers to residents of low- and medium-income households through a partnership with the local United WayThey received almost 600 applications within two weeks.

But air filters only go so far against pollution that covers whole neighborhoods, and with no definite end in sight, many residents are “on edge,” Dean said. “My sleep has been very bad lately. I can’t get, like, more than four or five hours, if that, and it’s [while] breathing in this shit anyway…. Your mental state’s not right.”

Nophlin, a resident of Bristol, Va., stated that the pollution often makes her anxious. “Dealing with COVID has been enough,” she said. “Dealing with the effects from this landfill on my babies, it’s too much…. Nobody’s going to convince me that my children are not being harmed.”

In a 2018 evaluation of the health risks from the Bridgeton landfill gases, ATSDR stated that “longlasting feelings of helplessness and frustration” around the odors and “uncertainty regarding the toxicity of the chemicals” can increase stress and cause stress-related illnesses.

Residents can share their experiences in the Facebook group. HOPE just completed a symptom survey that included depression and anxiety to better assess the needs of residents.

Nophlin has recently found her own solution to the problem: move. On Nov. 15, a few days after securing a townhouse on the opposite side of town, she and her boyfriend packed up her family’s belongings.

“I did my research on the landfill. It’s like from the beginning till now, anybody that’s been in charge of the city has failed us,” she said. “To me, it’s neglect. There’s no getting around it.”

Nophlin said she couldn’t wait to breathe fresher air again. Larry Widener, a neighbor, came to say goodbye. His apartment is so suffocating from the gases that Larry Widener and Barbara have been hiding towels under their doors. But the windows aren’t insulated.

“You can feel the air coming in [through] them,” he said, “and all that smell’s coming right in.”