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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/CHARLIE KAIJO The Stump Dump fire is shown, Friday, March 15, 2019 in Bella Vista.

Contracts to expand efforts to extinguish an underground landfill fire in Bella Vista are in the early stages of review, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The department's confirmation Thursday came three days after approval for the state to front up to $20 million for the work. Details of the financing haven't been worked out, the governor's office said Thursday. EnSafe is the Memphis-based company hired to help put out the fire.

Contract proposals for construction of an access road to the site and a small dam to retain water are being negotiated, said Donally Davis, communications director for the Department of Environmental Quality. Proposed construction contracts with state agencies require review by the Division of Building Authority at the state Department of Finance and Administration, she said.

Documents related to those contracts are turned in to the building authority for review, but the final contracts are still being negotiated by the Environmental Quality Department, Finance Department spokesman Scott Hardin said. Once the final contracts for the road and the dam are received, the final review "will take no more than one to two days," Hardin said.

Site preparation started before the latest contracts were submitted, according to previous statements by the agency. That work includes clearing trees and other vegetation to create a staging area around the site and building a support system to facilitate fire control and fire response, the department said.

Assuming the division approves the contracts, the construction schedule will still depend on the weather, Davis said.

"Weather permitting, construction for the access road and dam is estimated to take three to four weeks," she said. "ADEQ is working to finalize a scope of work to extinguish the fire and excavate waste."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 345 on Monday afternoon, three working days after passage in the Legislature. The measure authorizes the state to tap reserve money to start work on extinguishing the blaze while the state continues to seek federal taxpayer dollars and other, permanent sources to pay for the work.

Firefighters discovered the underground fire at a stump dump on Trafalgar Road on July 29. The dump is still burning.

Residents near the fire were urged in December to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors after an unhealthy air quality reading in the area. The state continues to caution people living within a half-mile radius of the blaze, although recent testing has shown air quality results in the "good" range.

Act 345 obligates Department of Environmental Quality to pay the money back to the two reserve funds named in the bill. The two funds involved are the state's Budget Stabilization Trust Fund and the state's Hazardous Substance Remedial Action Trust Fund.

The cost to put out the fire and clean up the site could be between $21 million and $39 million, according to state estimates.

"The act is designed to be flexible," said J.R. Davis, spokesman for the governor's office. It allows either state reserve money to go to the project or federal taxpayer money if and when that becomes available. Any federal money that comes in after reserve money is spent can ultimately go to replenish state reserve money, he said.

"The idea is to make sure there are options so nothing slows down the process," Davis said.

The financing arrangements also will accommodate repayment to the state if litigation to recoup the costs succeeds, the governor's spokesman said. The state expects to recoup money spent putting out the fire from past owners and operators of the landfill, he said.

The total forwarded from the state's reserve cannot exceed $20 million, and the money is to be repaid no later than June 20, 2023, according to Act 345.

The budget stabilization fund was created in 2015 at Hutchinson's request for a fund that can make loans to state departments as needed. The remedial fund is a similar reserve set up specifically for the Department of Environmental Quality for emergencies involving pollutants.

The finances in the bill are structured as a loan because of how the funds are set up and to allow work to begin this fiscal year, according to a spokesman for the governor's office and the bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette.

Officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and EnSafe are monitoring the situation in Bella Vista. The National Guard and state Health Department are also keeping track of air quality in the area. No serious problems with air quality in residential areas near the landfill were reported Thursday, a health department spokesman said.

Tom Judson, the Property Owners Association's chief operating officer, said the association operated the dump for wood and yard waste on leased land from December 2003 to 2016, after which the site was covered with soil.

State Desk on 03/16/2019

Print Headline: Dump contracts in review stages

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