Screenshot: KOLR10 News (YouTube)

An underground garbage fire at an illegal Arkansas dumping site has been burning for over seven months straight, the Associated Press reported on Sunday, and filling parts of the nearby town of Bella Vista with smoke residents say is causing health problems.

According to the AP, the fire is believed to be smoldering at least 70 feet (21 meters) under ground level, and its origins lay with a local property association that allowed residents to dump organic waste there in violation of the law. However, it’s clear that someone took the opportunity of the illegal dumping site to dispose of God-knows-what, the AP wrote:

At least two lawsuits have been filed against former and current owners of the 4.75-acre (1.9-hectare) plot of land, as well as the Bella Vista Property Owners Association, which shuttered the dump in 2016 before the owner sold it to a tree trimming and disposal service early last year.

The association began leasing the site in January 2004 from the storage company that owned it. The association allowed residents to dispose of brush, wood, and other organic materials in it. The state says the site never should have been operating as a dump of any kind. But state inspectors and contractors say it’s clear non-organic items such as car batteries, wiring, swimming pool liners were dumped there at some point, complicating efforts to put out the blaze and clean up the mess.

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This video from KOLR10 News makes the scale of the blaze more apparent:

An Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality inspector had previously visited the site in 2008 “in response to a complaint that cement mixer drums from Bella Vista’s developer had been dumped there,” the AP wrote, but never closed the site despite it lacking a permit. The property association told the AP that after it had discontinued operation of the dump in 2016, they had covered it with soil and vegetation. 

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The fire now cannot be put out via flooding due to the risk of spreading contamination to local waterways, the AP wrote, and the cost of putting it out is estimated at anywhere from $15 million to $37 million.

“The smell started to be pungent, toxic smelling. Really disgusting,” local resident Kelly Strain, who lives less than a thousand feet from the dump site, told the AP. “If you were outside and the wind was coming this way, you actually had to get back inside.”

In December 2018, the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that state officials, including Governor Asa Hutchinson, said they would help pay for the fire to be extinguished. The Environmental Protection Agency had collected air samples from around the site, the paper added, but until December no tests “showed elevated concentrations of chemicals of concern in the community.”

By mid-December, the Democrat-Gazette wrote, one test showed levels of pollution that were “unhealthy” for the population, and Arkansas health officials advised locals within a half-mile radius to avoid unnecessary work outdoors. One resident, Chris Nelson, told the AP that his family has developed a persistent cough, while his wife was diagnosed with bronchitis and his four-year-old son prescribed antibiotics.

Late last year, the Democrat-Gazette separately reported, another family filed a lawsuit against a tree care business that currently owns the dumping grounds, accusing them of starting the fire through negligence:

Cletis Wilkins, owner of Brown’s Tree Care, has denied having a controlled burn on the property.

Wilkins previously said his workers have dumped red clay on the smouldering ground and packed it down to smother the fire and he believes it’s mostly out.

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In late February, three Arkansas congressmen wrote a letter to the EPA asking for administrator Andrew Wheeler’s assistance. The same week, local media reported National Guard personnel had been deployed to the site to conduct further monitoring.

[AP]