I'd been wondering for months just who was going to foot the bill for extinguishing the subterranean stump-dump fire venting into the air around a Bella Vista neighborhood since last July.
Now we apparently have an answer: The community's Property Owners Association (POA) says it will pay the tab. Rightly so, I might add.
The association operated the dump on land leased from Blue Mountain Storage between December 2003 until Dec. 31, 2016, when it was sold to Brown's Tree Care, according to Tom Judson, the association's chief operating officer.
The dump went unmonitored in the final few years it was active. Workers reportedly would remove trash, well, when possible, according to the POA.
Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie told Democrat-Gazette reporters his focus remains on getting the fire put out regardless of who gets it done. "Let's get the fire out, get the bad stuff out of there and get it back to the way it was," Christie said.
State officials in December urged those living near the fire near Trafalgar Road to avoid prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors after testing discovered unhealthy air levels. The state continues cautioning those living within a half-mile radius although recent testing has shown air quality has risen mostly into the good range.
Having leased and used this dump site near within the planned residential community of nearly 29 thousand residents, the POA in 2016 buried what it had been dumping there. So it makes sense to me that it should shoulder this financial burden.
And a hefty financial load it promises to be, for this, as we have learned, is no task for 10 people with garden hoses and a backhoe. In January, the state estimated the cost of extinguishing the steadily erupting nightmare and cleaning up would run between $21 million and 37 million.
I assume the Bella Vista POA has that level of resources to tap since it has offered to pay for it (above and beyond its many other routine expenses).
One news account of this development said the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (cough) informed the POA in January that it might be held partially responsible for the fire and therefore have to contribute financially to snuffing the smoldering mess and cleaning up the site.
The association has provided services and amenities to Bella Vista since Cooper Communities Inc. developed the area in the 1960s, well before Bella Vista voted to incorporate in 2006.
The latest General Assembly approved a $20 million appropriation for extinguishing the blaze and cleanup. Yet with the association agreeing to cover those expenses, that appropriation apparently would no longer be necessary. I'd call such savings a windfall for the state and we the taxpayers, wouldn't you?
The state, which calls for containing the blaze then excavating the site, already had invested about $750,000 at the site.
The POA says it plans to employ three companies to finally put the fire out. Global company ERM will engineer on the project. A news story said it has extensive experience in environmental planning and compliance.
Then comes E-3 Environmental of Mississippi, which will perform the actual work, followed by CTEH of Little Rock, also nationally recognized in controlling and extinguishing large fires. The Department of Environmental Quality has allowed 30 days to get the problem resolved from the time POA contractors begin, the story said.
I asked Jim Parsons, head of the Bella Vista Patriots and for years a tenacious watchdog and nemesis to various doings by the POA (including filing a lawsuit against the POA and others over the fire) for his feelings about the POA's offer to pay for the cleanup.
He said it was a positive step for Judson to step up to the plate, considering he didn't create the problem, which arose between 2003 and 2016. "One thing this decision will bring out is that private business can get things done faster and for less than government agencies," he said.
Parson took it a step further, adding, "Now the POA needs to do what the Bella Vista Patriots advised them to do 15 years ago. And that is to get ready for bankruptcy. They need to start selling off our amenities. Private owners will do a better job running those anyway."
The POA already has legal problems with two civil lawsuits having been filed in connection with the fire. There may be others on the horizon, said Parsons.
"Attorneys in Northwest Arkansas and around the state are being inundated with victims of the stump-dump smoke," he said. "One couple called me to say how in preparation of their move from Missouri to Arkansas they stored all their earthly belongings in storage at Blue Mountain Storage, who owned the adjacent dump site and leased it to the POA when materials were being dumped there.
"When they went to get their things out, Servpro, the smoke experts, said everything they owned was destroyed by the smoke. So now we wonder how many renters of other storage units are going to be filing lawsuits. Homeowners are going to be suing the POA, Cooper Communities Inc., and Blue Mountain Storage for years to come."
He believes the biggest lawsuits are likely to come should doctors deem a child's lungs or an elderly person's life have been altered because of the stump -dump smoke.
Yes, valued readers, this beyond bizarre underground fire that could be smoldering for nearly a year as deep as 60 feet beneath the surface, is one big, costly, hazy, choking, watery, expensive mess that's not likely to soon drift lazily into a sunset on the next strong breeze.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist. Email him at email@example.com.
Web only on 05/18/2019
Print Headline: MASTERSON ONLINE: Property Owners Association steps up to the plate