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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/BEN GOFF @NWABENGOFF Smoke rises from the underground fire Friday, May 3, 2019, at the stump dump site in Bella Vista.

BELLA VISTA -- People who live near the underground fire at a former stump dump in Bella Vista have had to make adjustments in the nine months since the fire was discovered.

They now routinely gauge the wind direction and prepare for the smoky smell that sometimes wafts their way. They monitor air quality index readings as if perusing a novel. They change air filters with pit crew speed. Some houses need constant cleaning.

Some people have health ailments that they say never bothered them before.

They're surviving as best they can while they wait for the fire to be snuffed out.

Some days are worse than others. The smell lingers even after the smoke drifts away.

Mayor Peter Christie described the situation when he spoke before the state Joint Budget Committee in March.

"The impact on the residents has been catastrophic," he told lawmakers. And the Department of Health has indicated that the immediate half-mile radius "is in trouble [and] anybody with any kind of respiratory problem should not be outside ... nor doing any kind of exercise.

"Smoke and smell have permeated into people's homes. The smell is absolutely putrid," he said.

In the fire's vicinity, people are no longer buying homes, and home values are dropping, he said.

Thirteen years ago, Dave and Priscilla Shoulders, both now retired, moved to Bella Vista from Texas.

They live on Sutherland Lane, just east of the dump site. Tall trees have leafed out and now block their view of the site, but the smoke is always there when they step out their back door.

About 400 feet away is a PurpleAir sensor that a neighbor put in. On a recent Wednesday, they checked their cellphones for updates on the air quality outside.

The smoke at times looks like fog hovering in their backyard, they said. Cold weather made it worse.

"It's like we were sitting in a bowl," Dave said.

They've called the Fire Department when they saw flames rising from the site at night.

They sealed the back of the house, which is closest to the site, and put air purifiers in all of the rooms.

Priscilla thinks she has succeeded in keeping the inside of their home mostly free of the smoke smell. But she plans to get the upholstered furniture cleaned once the fire is out. "I am sure we have soot in here," she said.

Dave worries that when digging starts for extinguishing the fire, oxygen will get to whatever is burning below and the smoke will increase.

And he's not sure what was dumped at the site over the years.

John Hopfner, who lives about a mile from the dump, attended an Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality presentation April 18. He said then that he was concerned about his health because of the fire, and noted that his grandson who lives closer to the blaze hasn't been able to play outside.

A doctor with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences advised that children and the elderly who live near the site take precautions.

Dr. Nikhil Meena, a pulmonologist and associate professor, said people could develop lung and eye irritations depending on what might be in the smoke. Others might experience coughing, shortness of breath or runny noses, Meena said.

Aside from the immediate ailments, data show that smog lowers life expectancies in cities and countries around the world, Meena added.

Sharon Squire moved to Bella Vista three years ago from Little Rock.

She said she suffers with dry eyes, a runny nose, sinus problems and nosebleeds that she blames on the smoke from the dump, which is about three-10ths of a mile from her home.

Particulate matter monitoring has shown air quality index readings in the fire area mostly in the "good" range, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. There were a few "moderate readings" and one "unhealthy" reading at monitoring sites in mid-December.

An air quality index of zero-50 is considered "good," according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The agency says the air quality index is a yardstick that ranges from zero-500. The higher the air quality index value, the higher the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern.

Particulate matter monitoring measures the amount of solid and liquid droplets -- such as ash, dust and smoke -- in the air. It provides a snapshot of the air quality, the Arkansas Department of Health says.

Meena said a person who is used to an air quality index of zero would notice if the reading went up to 30. "Your body is a fine-tuned machine. It feels differences," he said.

The Health Department has kept an eye on the fire for months.

"We are not aware of anyone without pre-existing asthma who was diagnosed with an asthma exacerbation," said Dr. Dirk Haselow, Health Department state epidemiologist. "Several individuals occasionally described respiratory irritation, congestion and sinus issues which they related to the site. Two individuals similarly reported skin issues."

The Health Department can't provide much detail because of privacy concerns, but it has not seen a lot more reported illnesses in the area as compared with areas farther upwind, Haselow said.

"Otherwise healthy persons need not limit their activities around the site," he said. "Persons who have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to respiratory disease may want to reduce exposure to the site. But for anyone who smells or sees smoke, it is prudent to minimize exposure. Anyone who experiences symptoms they are concerned about should see their doctor."

Shawn Olson lives on Knoyle Lane, just south of the site.

At his home the smoke smell depends on which way the wind is blowing. It worsens with morning fog, he said.

He doesn't pay much attention to the whole situation. He goes about his day, getting up early in the morning and going to work, but he does think the problem should have been dealt with quicker.

"This could have been done in a month. Now its millions and millions in wasted money," he said. "How many people have been out here? The governor was here. It's still going."

Tom Judson, the Bella Vista Property Owners Association's chief operating officer, has said the association operated the dump on leased land from December 2003 to Dec. 31, 2016, after which the site was covered with soil. Nobody monitored the site during the last few years it was open, but staff members would remove trash when possible, Judson has said. The property is now owned by Brown's Tree Care.

Firefighters discovered the underground fire on July 29, and Dave Shoulders says "the people who are responsible for this nonsense need to pay up."

In fact, the property owners association has agreed to pay to extinguish and clean up the dump site, the state announced May 3. The state will continue inspections and provide oversight.

The state's cleanup plan was estimated to cost up to $39 million and take up to three months once work started. The Legislature has approved $20 million in appropriations to put toward the effort.

But, Judson said the blaze can be put out for as little as $4 million and perhaps extinguished by June 13. He made those comments on a property owners association-produced show posted Monday to YouTube.

"Two things. We are confident we can take over the site and get the fire out quicker then was originally planned, and we can get the fire out for less money," Judson said.

The association will hire three companies to extinguish the blaze. Judson said the companies estimated the cost at "$4 million, maybe more."

A timeline on the association's website shows the contractors mobilizing on Wednesday this week, and the fire being out by June 13, weather permitting. That plan still needs Department of Environmental Quality approval.

The Legislature's $20 million appropriation may no longer be needed now that the association has assumed responsibility of the site, the association said in its news release.

Judson warned that the cleanup could add to the smoke problem.

"We're going to have appropriate air monitoring in place ... but I'd be lying to you if I didn't say it could get worse before it gets better.

"But we have to get the fire out. That's the key."

Metro on 05/12/2019

Print Headline: Burning dump a bane for residents


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  • Jfish
    May 12, 2019 at 7:03 a.m.

    I thought that Bella Vista was supposed to be a "planned" progressive retirement community. I still cannot believe that the taxpayers of Arkansas are going to be responsible for $20 million dollars for someone else's negligence. Hopefully Governor Hutchinson and the Legislature will provide some answers, or it might require some lawsuits to hold the appropriate parties responsible. I am guessing that an attorney like Richard Mays would have a field day with this case.

  • GandKW
    May 12, 2019 at 7:30 a.m.

    The HIGHER the air quality index value, the LOWER the air quality. Who invented that scale?

  • MaxCady
    May 12, 2019 at 12:47 p.m.

    Glad I don't live around there.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    May 12, 2019 at 12:58 p.m.

    This is the price you pay for believing money will solve everything.
    You're rich and you want to retire, so you think making a pillow on top of poor Arkansans is going to do you well.
    Never once giving a thought to what and who lay beneath you.

  • UoABarefootPhdFICYMCA
    May 12, 2019 at 1 p.m.

    Knowing the Governer and the Legislature.
    And the nation of Israel...
    these are not accident but acts of sabotage.
    like selling the resources out from under a people.
    you have to really hate people, or view them as cattle to just "do as you please" and let the riff raff pay for it...