The Bristol, Tennessee City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to move forward with a lawsuit against its neighbor Bristol, Virginia over the Virginia city’s stinky landfill. The motion authorizes law firm Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP to issue a notice of intent to sue to potential defendants, which is required at least 60 days before filing the suit. It does not obligate the Tennessee city to pursue legal action or block it from seeking a non-judicial settlement.

“We’ve suffered a lot, all of us. I don’t think there’s anybody in the room or sitting up here that wants to take legal action, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do. So, I just want to tell you that I’m sorry that you’re going through it. I thought many times that maybe we have gotten past it. I thought the last two days I didn’t smell anything, and right when I pulled up today, I smelled it here,” Bristol, Tennessee City Council Member Chad Keen said.

Keen said he first heard of the smell during the 2020 holiday season.

Multiple public commenters thanked the council for supporting them. One lady said her 18-month-old baby wasn’t growing properly, due to suspected benzene poisoning. Commenter Selena Reynolds said the fumes choked her dog to death.

“My husband and I have evacuated our home. We woke up last Tuesday literally choking to death. At that time we didn’t have an air purifier in the house,” Reynolds said.

United Way of Bristol Executive Director Lisa Cofer told the Council that her organization had received 628 applications for air purifiers.

In 1998, the Bristol, Virginia landfill opened in an old quarry, according to a November 3 presentation from Bristol, Virginia City Manager Randall Eads. The landfill began receiving smell complaints in November 2020, and city staff met with consultants and the Department of Environmental Quality in 2020. The city began mitigation efforts in December 2020, improving gas extraction wells and hiring a contractor to review the gas system. That review showed that existing gas wells may have been compromised, and most had water in them.

In January 2021, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began working with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (VADEQ) to monitor the site. An October report shows smells at multiple locations, with odor complaints on both sides of the state border. Sampling detected both odor-causing compounds and volatile organic compounds.

21 new wells were installed, and they are scheduled to be completely connected to a gas collection and control system  (GCCS) by December 17, according to the November presentation.

Connection to GCCS is expected to substantially reduce odors from the landfill,” the presentation states.

A November letter from  VADEQ Director David Paylor agreed that when connected, the new wells will reduce odors, but warned that until then, site activity and changing weather patterns would likely increase the smells.

VADEQ has issued four notices of violation to the city, three focused on air, and one on solid waste. A September notice warned that temperatures and pressures at gas wells exceeded regulatory requirements. On December 7, the agency issued a new violation, citing a failed gas pump identified in April that the city hadn’t replaced by the time of a November site inspection. On Wednesday, the city responded that the pump was functioning within the parameters of a permit, and that rebuilt pumps will be back in service later this month.

VADEQ Director of Communications Greg Bilyeu told The Virginia Star that Bristol, Virginia has been cooperating with the agency.

He said, “The City is undertaking appropriate steps at this time to mitigate this situation, and we expect improvements to begin as engineering control projects are completed and continue to come online.”

Bristol, Virginia officials didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the pending litigation from their Tennessee neighbor isn’t a surprise. The Bristol, Tennessee City Council has been considering the litigation since at least September, and attorneys from both cities have been in conversations, according to an October update from the Bristol, Virginia city manager.

The City of Bristol, Virginia welcomes the opportunity to discuss the landfill, in detail, with members of the Bristol, Tennessee City Council if they so desire,” Eads reported. “Otherwise, we will be prepared for any litigation that arises with Bristol, Tennessee.”

In the Tuesday Bristol, Tennessee City Council meeting, Member Lea Powers said, “What we’ve realized through all this is the most valuable protection that we can give one another is a safe and clean environment in which to live.”

She noted that residents and officials are also facing safety risks from COVID-19.

“And to have to deal with this along with the odors permeating homes, places of work, unable to sleep — it was on the news this evening before we came that there’s concern about it in our schools,” Powers said. “No one should have to go to sleep at night and worry that they may have to evacuate their house in the middle of the night.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network.  Email tips to [email protected].