‘We all just feel helpless’: Bristol, TN City Schools sends call to families impacted by landfill odor

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL) – Administrators confirmed with News Channel 11 that families received an automated call regarding “additional support during the school day” for those impacted by the Bristol, Virginia landfill and its relating environmental issues.

Rebecca House, who does public relations for Bristol, Tennessee City Schools, told News Channel 11 that the school system has no control over the odor or anything related to the landfill in the neighboring Twin City, but that the school system is dedicated to helping its students.

“While the landfill issues are not something we can directly control, we are committed to taking measures to ensure the air quality inside our buildings is safe, and that we provide any additional support needed for students and staff as a result of their exposure to the odors and gases during the time they spend outside of our buildings,” House said.

She advised that parents are asked to contact their children’s school directly should they seek support from the school system in the event that their children are impacted by the landfill.

“As expected, our schools are experiencing the impact at varying levels based on location; therefore, the administrators at each school are the best point-of-contact for families who would like specifics regarding measures being taken at their child’s school or any additional support that may be needed,” House said. “Principals are happy to speak with parents if they have concerns regarding their child, and that is the message we are communicating to our families.”

The following is a transcript of the call sent to families in the school system:

“For some of our families, a growing concern in recent months has been the impact of the odors and gases coming from the Bristol, Virginia landfill. I want to assure you that we have standards for the air quality inside our buildings, and providing a safe environment for students and staff is our top priority. We are taking several steps to evaluate and reduce the impact and will continue to do so. If you reside in an affected area, please let us know if there are days your child has been impacted during the night or is currently experiencing issues which may require us to provide additional support during the school day. You can do this by sending a note or email to your child’s teacher.”

Bristol, Tennessee City Schools

House confirmed that parents have already reached out to schools and administrators.

“The volume and nature of parent concerns varies by school, of course,” she said. “I do not have specifics. The purpose of our message to families is to make sure parents understand the best way to communicate with the school if they have concerns.”

The Bristol, Tennessee City Council meets at the Slater Center at 7 p.m.

On the agenda, the United Way of Tennessee and Virginia will make presentations for its air purifier grant program which provides funds to make air purifier models available at no cost to Bristol, Tennessee households that meet certain low-and-moderate income criteria.

Parents: ‘I don’t think they know what to do

News Channel 11 spoke in depth with a handful of parents in the school system and one living in Bristol, but his 5-year-old daughter not attending the school system.

Will Hankins has one child who attends Tennessee High School, two who attend the middle school, and one child at Holston View Elementary School.

He said all of his children complain of smelling the stench of the Bristol, Virginia dump at their school on the other side of the border.

Hankins, like every other parent News Channel 11 spoke with, reported a slew of symptoms he believes is connected to the gasses that contain the foul odor spreading across the Twin Cities.

“We have had days where it is difficult for all of our kids to kind of get up and get moving. We’ve all been lethargic, we’ve been run down. And it’s not because we had an exhausting day the day before. So we’ve definitely experienced that. We’ve had headaches when we’re waking up. We’ve had some of my kids about nosebleeds when they get up or in the middle of the night, things like that,” he said.

Jessica Gentry has a senior at Tennessee High and a 4th grader at Fairmount Elementary. She said her youngest has borne the brunt of the disease she believes to be caused by the smell.

“She has severe anxiety issues which were caused from some medication that was prescribed for the allergy issues that she was having due to the smell that invades our home almost nightly,” Gentry explained.

She said her home – like many others in Bristol – is older.

“It is a family home passed down and although we have spent thousands of dollars trying to fix the problem, it still finds its way in and these homes are just old, and there’s no way to really keep it out,” Gentry said.

She said though the school system has acknowledged students experience severe symptoms due to the odor – especially as the school system pointed out, if they live in an area significantly impacted by the smell – she is still facing repercussions for her daughter missing school.

“It is the season for sickness there’s a lot of it right now. So it is hard to tell what is what. My daughter has had to miss days. They are telling us to call. But I still received a letter saying that she was truant, and I would have to go in front of the judge and explain these absences and I will do so. But yeah, I don’t feel like there’s really been any help from the school system at all,” she said.

Mike Dean has three children in the Bristol, TN school system.

“As a parent, I’m like, what do we do now? How do we tie it to the landfill or is it something else but this is a monthly thing. These children have been sick at least every month,” he said.

He said his children constantly have runny noses, sinus infections, headaches, and nosebleeds, similar to other children in the area.

“A good five times out of the week where they go wait for the school bus it’s just intoxicating outside. It’s so toxic. They don’t even want to wait outside for the school bus. They’re just hanging out here inside the house. So it’s affecting their everyday life,” he said.

He said he received the call from the school system but was unimpressed and hoped for more.

“I think they’re just doing just a little bit to get by to kind of appease the parents in this situation, which is not right. They have to step up,” he said.

Gentry agreed.

“I think we’re all under enough stress as it is with COVID,” she said. “it’s frustrating because we can’t do anything. We feel like we can’t do anything. And I feel like if there’s a day where it’s bad and they can smell it outside, they don’t need to be outside. We don’t need to be on the playground. Let’s keep them inside. Let’s do what we can until we can find a resolution but I feel like most people just feel like their hands are tied. There’s not really a whole lot we can do other than speak our piece.”

Ashley Stone’s daughter attends Fairmount Elementary as well. She said her daughter faces the same symptoms every day that the other children at her school face.

“It’s only happening when the gases are in the air and that you are smelling them. So that tells me it’s related to the inhalation of these chemicals,” Stone said.

She too added that she was disappointed by the school system’s communication.

“They are communicating with me as far as if she has a nosebleed at school or if it’s affecting her day, but I also think that their overall response was very generic,” Stone said.

Transparency proved to be a big deal to most parents who spoke with News Channel 11.

“We really need more transparency from our leadership. And that’s just kind of all of the leadership you know for to specifically go back to the school system,” Hankins said.

He said though he was also unimpressed with the school system’s communication, he was glad to receive it.

“I appreciate that they have expressed concern I do I appreciate that. They’re recognizing that this is an issue and they’re acknowledging it. But I’d love to hear more about what are some of the solutions that they are looking at doing right now,” he said.

Chris Burker has a 5-year-old who attends private school outside of the Bristol, TN public school district, but still lives and learns in the city limits.

He explained that his house was built in 1910 and though he’s tried everything, he can’t seem to keep the gasses from reaching his child.

“I mean, there’s no real way of sealing it up, keeping it out. When the smell comes in, if it’s a six or a seven outside it’s probably an eight or a nine inside my house because it sits there and it just keeps intensifying. It’s a small house and I mean there’s just no way of keeping it out,” he explained.

He said that once it enters his home, it takes hours to dissipate, and he believes it’s having a negative effect on his child.

“I have a five-year-old, I’ve got two air purifiers. It’s really, really strong when it comes and it stays all night long. We do feel hopeless because we own our house. And there’s nowhere for us to escape to. If you try to go run to a hotel or something like that, it’s right outside. It’s all over Bristol. That’s the problem,” Burker said.

“There’s been many nights that we’ve got in our van and drove for a couple of hours just to get fresh air.”

Many homeowners in Bristol told News Channel 11 that there’s no easy way out.

“No one’s gonna buy our home we don’t have the option to go somewhere else and buy a new home. It’s a financial burden. And we were just stuck. It’s something we are just going to have to deal with,” Gentry said. “I hope with maybe some leadership changes – there’s some big changes coming on the Virginia side. I hope that maybe that will help.”

Parents on the Tennessee side of Bristol hoping leadership in the Commonwealth start pulling their weight to help solve the problem.

“I know this is not going to be a short-term thing. It’s going to be a long-term situation, especially if they don’t move their feet on the other side. They have to get they have to do something for the people stop with the politics and just keep and keep the people in mind we need help everyone needs children,” Dean said.

But parents echoed, they simply want leadership – whether it be in the municipalities or the schools – to work to solve the issue for the sake of their kids’ health.

“It would be helpful to hear more from them, you know, and I don’t have some solution,” Hankins admitted. “I mean if it’s invading a school, and you’ve got kids in a classroom, you know, what do you do with it?”

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