A Horrible Stink In Bristol

A 21-year-old resident reaches out for help as a toxic landfill endangers her community.

Today, we’re sharing a letter from a reader about a toxic landfill in her town. Her account reads like story from a future dystopian novel, but this hell is real life for her and thousands of other residents in her small town. We’ll discuss more of what’s happening below . Air pollution leads to more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, so the fact that officials are dragging their feet on this issue is even more devastating. It’s corruption to the core.

Dear Ms. Brockovich,

I'm emailing you to ask for your help. I am twenty-one years old and I currently live in Bristol, Tennessee, right on the state line of Bristol, Virginia. I’m in the red zone two miles away from the Bristol Virginia Landfill. This landfill is killing my community slowly. My neighbors and myself experience hell on Earth every night.

At this time, the landfill is releasing harmful chemicals into the air, and due to negligence, possibly the ground, as well as, the water. These chemicals have been confirmed to be methane, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds, and benzene to name a few. 

Every single night, my eyes will start burning so I know the smell is starting. I go around my house and make sure every crevice of my home is sealed tight before it hits harder. I gather everything I could need during the night and then get my dogs to take them to my bedroom. After I close my bedroom door there is no leaving, because if I open the door I am guaranteed a headache and vomiting. All I can do is pray it won't be strong that night.

This is a nightly occurrence, and it's only getting worse. What started as chronic headache and the occasional sickness, is now nose bleeds throughout the night, tremors, dizziness, and rapid heart beats every single night for a year. My neighbors, and myself are suffering. Not only is the smell horrendous, but the effects are just as terrible. 

Not only are we facing chemicals being released from the surface, but we are facing chemically contaminated water and decades of destroyed land. In my community you will find an increased number of sickness like COPD and cancer. People wake up with nose bleeds coughing up blood. They keep a chronic headache and are developing tremors. Some people stay in a constant dizzy and foggy state to the point they can't get out of bed. And our pets are dying rapidly.

These problems are caused by a negligent city council, those former who approved the plans, and those current who have went on the record to deny help because they “don't want to assume guilt incase of a lawsuit,” in their own words. Our very own city manager, the person responsible for the landfill, is also the city attorney. 

I understand that Bristol is a small town, but it's my small town, with a lot of wonderful people. And these wonderful people are suffering because of sheer negligence dating back decades. We are at a standstill between the red tape, corrupt city council, and cross state agencies. 

We need help and we need hope. If you could offer even just the smallest advice on what we as a community need to do, or even just your opinion on the situation. We are organizing at the moment and need all of the awareness we can get. It is the only thing we can do right now. 

Signed a girl who just wants to breathe,

Karah Waller

Karah, thanks so much for your note. I’m so sorry for everything your community is going through.

I want to start by saying shame on those in power who are letting this environmental disaster continue. How do you sleep at night knowing this community is in pain? Just as officials provide bottled water to communities with undrinkable water, these community members need air filters and/or safe shelters to escape this deadly stink until the issue is resolved.

Sounds like officials on the Tennessee side are working with the United Way of Bristol to provide air filters to low- and moderate-income households affected, which is a start.

Let’s review the facts.

Bristol is a twin city located in two states—Tennessee and Virginia. You can cross state lines on their shared Main street. In both states, Bristol is ranked as one of the poorest areas, and we know that low-income communities often endure more intense pollution.

The landfill opened in 1998 and is managed by Bristol, Virginia’s Public Works Department. It’s an unusual location—in an old limestone quarry—which collects water and is not ideal for a huge waste pile. Just this year, a mother won a High Court case for the emissions at Walleys Quarry, in Staffordshire, England, after lawyers showed how hydrogen sulphide had worsened her son’s underlying health problems.

The Bristol landfill accepts municipal solid waste (household trash) and non-hazardous special waste (which can include anything from crude oil and natural gas waste, fossil fuel combustion waste, or waste from mineral processing and mining practices).

About 90 percent of the trash accepted here is from New York, New Jersey, and California, according to Karah, and records were not kept as to what was being dumped. 

On a national level, the EPA does not maintain a list of all the landfills in the United States, so there’s no definitive number on how many we have, but studies (like this one and this article) indicate that residents living closer to landfill sites are at higher health and environmental risks when compared to those living further away from them.

Landfills are managed by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), a public law signed in 1976, to help address increasing issues from the growing volume of municipal and industrial waste.

In Bristol, residents report dealing with the toxic odor for years with the smell and symptoms worsening since late 2020.

A 6-week EPA study found, "no imminent threat to human health," but residents disagree. You can read the EPA reports here.

According to Bristol city manager, Randall Eads, who is also the city attorney, closing the landfill would cost at least $30 million. Eads is the person responsible for overseeing the maintenance of the landfill and making sure everything is running up to code.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality says the waste at the landfill is “very wet” with “high decomposition,” which could be contributing to the odor. The DEQ has issued three notices of alleged violations against the City of Bristol, Virginia over issues at its landfill.

The city council approved more than $1 million to drill 21 new landfill gas wells, but work is ongoing to connect the wells to existing infrastructure.

Still, problems persist in Bristol.

Community members hosted a protest last week outside of their city hall and you can see the emotions ran high here.

They have formed a grassroots organization called HOPE for Bristol, with “hope” standing for Healing Our Polluted Environment. More than 3,000 members are also gathering and discussing the issue on a Facebook group.

Karah spoke with The Brockovich Report this week saying, “As of right now, our biggest concern is the water and damage to our liner. There is high evidence of a subsurface rejection, and if our liner is damaged our water and ground is completely destroyed.”

She also mentioned that crew members from the EPA have said the air pollution is not considered to be at dangerous levels. But off the record, they said they would never move their children there. Members of the DEQ say everything is fine on the record, but off the record it's some of the worst levels they’ve ever seen.

What do you think? What would you do if this landfill was in your town? Let us know in the comments below.