BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — Leaders of a citizens group advocating for solutions to the Bristol landfill gas emission problems said Tuesday they hope Friday’s announcement that the state attorney general is suing the city will expedite solutions.

HOPE For Bristol President Joel Kellogg and Secretary Becky Evenden spoke to News Channel 11 about ongoing noxious fumes coming from the site, their perception that Bristol has slow-walked the remediation process and why they think Attorney General Jason Miyares filed a lawsuit that could result in millions of dollars in fines against the city.

“I believe the goal of that is to get Bristol, Virginia to finally enter into an acceptable consent order as far as remediation and going forward, closure of this landfill – permanent closure,” Kellogg said of the AG’s lawsuit, which was announced Friday.

Joel Kellogg of HOPE For Bristol. (WJHL photo)

Kellogg described the suit as “a big anvil of hundreds of millions of dollars of fines” being held over Bristol’s head so the city will “play ball” more than two years after citizens first complained about the landfill’s odors. Bristol has yet to enter into a consent order with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Now, such an order could end up being with Miyares’s office.

The lawsuit cites at least 22 separate violations and requests fines of up to $31,500 a day for each. Kellogg said if that prompts a consent order with any party, “it would be huge for our community.”

If it was an anvil, the mere threat of its dropping may have the desired effect. In a post responding to the lawsuit Friday, the City of Bristol wrote that it “has insisted that a Virginia court case is a necessary and important procedural step” that it hoped would “give the public confidence in our remediation work at the landfill.”

Kellogg said he thinks a lawsuit was the only option left because in his opinion Bristol has been unwilling to negotiate with the state in a fair and acceptable manner.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this point but I don’t see any further escalation,” he said. “You can’t go a whole heck of a lot higher up than this. Maybe finally we get some action.”

The city’s Friday post said the lawsuit “provides an opportunity for the parties to reach an agreement on a consent decree that will resolve outstanding issues with the Commonwealth’s regulators and place Bristol’s landfill remediation efforts and timeline into a court order.”   

Kellogg said he would like to think Bristol’s leaders would act to move toward a consent order after this salvo from the state.

“I would like to be optimistic…but we really haven’t seen anything to that effect. I’m sure there’s some things going on behind the scenes but nothing that they do or don’t do would surprise me.”

Limited progress

For her part, Evenden said she’s seen responses by the city that mainly seem designed to meet requirements set by an injunction in a lawsuit filed by neighboring Bristol, Tenn. Work recommended by an expert panel nine months ago, including the creation of a sidewall designed to help mitigate gas escaping, has been slow to materialize.

She said the fact that Bristol didn’t initiate that work until December was a concern. Now, she expects close to five more months of work as the sidewall pipe is laid. That will be followed by drilling of additional wells deep into the waste.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a huge amount of relief until we have a really thick geomembrane on top of that landfill,” she said.

Becky Evenden of HOPE For Bristol. (WJHL photo)

Evenden said the community pushed for such a remediation even before an expert panel recommended it.

The panel recommended a specific type of material that should help block waste gases from escaping into the air. Evenden said she understands the membrane would have a very tight seal allowing gases to be “vacuumed out” from below the surface.

In the meantime, the sidewall work may actually be making things worse for neighboring residents as it dislodges previously buried waste and gases escape.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, and to be honest the landfill gases could become much worse in the meantime until that work is complete,” she said.

Evenden said she does understand that a gas well plan is slated for bid submission Friday, another step toward capturing gases before they escape into the air.

Aside from the sidewall, geomembrane and additional well drilling, Evenden said the community is very concerned about a lack of stationary air monitoring around the landfill. She said the EPA tested around the landfill’s perimeter, but that was more than a year ago.

“It’s a piece that wasn’t asked of the expert panel,” Evenden said. They weren’t asked to consider the health and safety of the community necessarily, they were asked, ‘how do we fix the problem at the landfill?’”

Kellogg lives in an area directly affected and said the smell has actually gotten worse recently. He said rainfall tends to ease the odors but that they come “back with a vengeance” when things dry out.

He said as time passed after people first complained in December 2020, he and others began to “lose a little bit of faith in our regulatory agencies and our governments, our political system.”

He said the goal has always been to get the landfill closed “and to get our community back.” He believes that possibility is closer than ever, and that he’s learned that some communities have been fighting similar battles for decades.

“It’s hard to see it from where we stand, as we choke in our homes every night on these toxic fumes, but our community is actually light years ahead of so many other communities that have been fighting this for years or decades even,” Kellogg said.

He said in that context, Bristol has come a long way in a short time, “and we need to be proud of our community for standing up.”

HOPE For Bristol’s efforts have drawn more than just the attention of the attorney general’s office. The group will host two experts familiar with community battles against toxic waste at the Slater Community Center on Jan. 26.

Lois Gibbs, known as “the mother of Superfund,” and her husband Stephen Lester, a Harvard-educated toxicologist, will speak to community members starting at 6 p.m. and conduct a question and answer session. Gibbs led the fight for accountability at Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. where decades of dumping toxic chemicals into a landfill harmed the health of hundreds of residents.

In its Friday statement, the City of Bristol wrote that it is “fully committed to addressing and resolving challenges at the Bristol quarry landfill in an environmentally sound manner.”