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Genesis of the stench

A look back at how Bristol’s smelly situation began

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BRISTOL, Va. — Former city leaders were convinced, as early as the 1980s, that converting an old quarry into a landfill would not only solve where to put the city’s trash but generate profits by accepting trash from across the region.

A review of more than a decade’s worth of Bristol Herald Courier stories and other sources reveals the path the city of Bristol, Virginia followed to develop a landfill that today is the center of controversy and concern — awaiting recommendations from a panel of national experts on how to resolve odor, emission and other issues.

The panel’s work follows some 18 months of suffering by residents on both sides of town; a dilemma that has attracted this unprecedented review by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, air monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency and other reviews. The city has invested more than $3 million to date trying to address the problem and is programming millions more into its budget for expected future remedies.

“The expert panel appointed by the commonwealth to address persistent odors from the city’s landfill has identified and will be recommending effective strategies to mitigate landfill odors. The panel’s recommendations will include steps for immediate emissions containment. These steps will be deployed within the landfill and analyzed to confirm their effectiveness,” panel Chair and Virginia Tech Department Head Mark Widdowson wrote in a March 28 email to stakeholders. “The panel is recommending additional engineering design, construction, and operational steps for managing the landfill in an environmentally-responsible manner now and into the future. The details of the panel’s findings and recommendations will be provided to you in a report on or about April 25.”

The panel was appointed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the same agency that approved the city’s original landfill permits in 1993 and 1996. That permitting process would typically be completed in less than half that time and speaks to the complexity of this expansive project.

In fact, it took the city more than a decade — from initial conversation to opening day — and borrowing more than $20 million to establish the quarry landfill.


As early as 1981, Bristol, Virginia leaders considered the former Vulcan Materials rock quarry — a 137-acre, 400-foot-deep site as a potential replacement for its 17-acre Shakesville Road landfill which operated nearby.

A private waste collection firm studied the quarry but opted not to begin the permitting process. The City Council voted in 1989 to spend $125,000 for a three-year option to purchase the property. City officials told state lawmakers at a December 1989 meeting where they were seeking state support for a proposed regional landfill. The city wanted to enlist other regional localities to help defray the costs of developing a landfill since its own landfill was expected to be full by 1992, a Herald Courier story reported.

Then-City Manager Paul Spangler told lawmakers he’d received a “lukewarm” reception from state environmental regulators because of “expected engineering difficulties” in a process that could take up to two years to complete — with no guarantee of acceptance. They admitted the site presented challenges, including how to deal with water “seeping into the quarry,” pumping it out and environmental monitoring. But city officials envisioned the quarry as a solution for its trash for the next 50 to 60 years.

While the envisioned regional effort never materialized, city officials pressed forward and retained STS Consultants of Deerfield, Illinois to conduct a feasibility study and cost analysis, which was completed in 1990. With space in its landfill running low, the city directed the firm to develop preliminary plans and begin work on a state landfill permit application.

Under DEQ, landfill permitting is a two-step process. Part A provides basic information about a proposed site, maps, reports and other demonstrations that the proposed facility “meets all applicable siting criteria and is suitable for its intended use,” according to the agency’s website.

The consultants told the city one big advantage of the site was that it was 200 feet below the groundwater table and, since groundwater flowed into but not out of the site, any potential pollutants should remain trapped in the site where they could be “monitored and collected,” according to an article about innovative landfill projects that appeared in the Sept. 1, 1996, issue of “City and County Magazine.”

Initial permitting

The city submitted its Part A landfill permit application in September 1992 and DEQ approved it one year later, in September 1993.

Simultaneously, the city was buying time in its existing landfill by refining some processes, including switching from soil to membrane covering, upgrading waste compaction equipment, excluding tree waste from the site and securing vertical expansion permits from DEQ in 1991 and 1993. They also began operating an incinerator and tire chipper to reduce waste stream impact and added the shredded tires to its daily cover.

On Feb. 24, 1994, the City Council unanimously approved borrowing $9.9 million to construct the landfill in the former quarry. The money went into an enterprise fund to finance the project. STS was retained to design the landfill, its groundwater and leachate collection systems and multi-layer clay liner. Engineering was expected to cost about $900,000, former City Manager Spangler told the council.

At this point the city had already spent more than $2.1 million on the project. Spangler said the city would ask the Tennessee Valley Authority to reimburse those costs out of the $3.5 million TVA pledged to pay the city for renewing its power agreement.

At the time, Bristol, Virginia generated about 70 tons of waste per day, so paying for the landfill debt and operations costs would require taking in outside trash. City officials had no shortage of potential clients.

When word of a potential new landfill got out, the city’s phones began to ring. Bristol, Virginia was first contacted by Lee County, then a private firm that collected trash in Damascus and Smyth County, Virginia, plus Sullivan County, Johnson City and Washington County in Tennessee and others about the possibility of accepting their trash.

“If I took trash from everyone who has expressed interest within the last 60 to 90 days, we would have in excess of 1,040 tons per day,” Spangler told the newspaper in March 1994.


The first public opposition to the quarry landfill emerged in April 1994 in the person of Bristol, Tennessee resident Rachael Barnes, who expressed concern the project could damage adjoining land. She told the City Council she was gathering signatures on a petition opposing the quarry landfill.

Within a month the movement secured signatures of hundreds of people, all imploring the city to turn back. They cited a 1971 engineering study indicating faults existed in the eastern and southern walls of the quarry that extended a half-mile into Tennessee. The city manager said that information had been reviewed as part of the city’s approved Part A permit.

The group also reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bristol Tennessee City Council to try and enlist their support. One member of the group wrote a letter to the White House and received a reply that the matter had been turned over to the EPA for review.


In response to those and other environmental concerns, the city held a sparsely attended public meeting in June 1994 where Spangler called the landfill “overdesigned.”

“All the state requires is that you have a double liner and a leachate collection system. That’s all,” Spangler said. “People a whole lot smarter than me assure that what we’ve done is a whole lot better than that. This thing is overdesigned.”

He explained the base of the landfill would have three layers of “closely compacted clay and three collection systems that will be closely monitored.”

Spangler said “many other alternatives were considered before the quarry project was initiated.”

“We’re taking every precaution, and people a whole lot smarter than me have tried to pick this thing apart,” Spangler said. “This is the very best solution we have. This is the answer for us, for Bristol, Tennessee, for both Washington counties, for Smyth County and Lee County. It’s the best choice we’ve got.”

By July 1994 the city had already spent $2.35 million on the landfill, including nearly $990,000 to prepare and submit its Part A application, over $520,000 for equipment and related costs and a $200,000 down payment on the land.

Part B, delays and approval at last

In September 1994 the city and its consultants submitted its Part B landfill application to DEQ. It included five volumes of specific information regarding the proposed landfill’s design, operations plan, groundwater and landfill gas sampling and analysis.

The initial review was completed in about six months, by March 1995. The following month — on April 4, 1995 — DEQ officials visited the quarry site, met with city officials and the city’s consultants. City officials said at that time no new issues were raised, they expected the permit would be approved that summer and hoped to open the landfill by July 1996.

In May 1995, a DEQ official told the newspaper the agency was in the “final stages” of its technical review, but this was the “most technical” Part B application the department had ever received and, if approved, would be the “first of its kind in the state.”

Throughout this time, the city kept bringing its trash and some from outside localities to its nearly full landfill.

City officials continued to express optimism the approval and a required public hearing could be completed by July or August. However, that was soon moved to late September, following a July meeting in Richmond.

“We’re extremely pleased that the state appears to be ready to issue the final approval,” then-Mayor Jerry Wolfe said at that time. “I think the fact that this process has taken two to three years for approval shows that the state was very diligent in studying the project.”

A new wrinkle emerged in late August when DEQ requested additional information regarding the clay liner. The city was told to provide a computer model to “prove the three-layered liner material will work,” then-Assistant City Manager Bill Dennison said.

“It’s a design problem. It is technical in nature. It has absolutely nothing to do with the environmental integrity of the landfill,” Dennison said at that time.

After September passed without any update, the city reached out to then-state Sen. William Wampler and asked him to inquire about the review.

Wampler said he contacted the agency to expedite, not influence, a decision.

“All I’m asking them to do is just make their mind up about what questions remain,” Wampler said at the time. “This has a sensitive timeline on it. We need to know whether this [quarry site] is an option or not.”

That approval arrived a few days later, on Oct. 12, setting the stage for a final public hearing, which was held Jan. 3, 1996.

A number of residents of both Bristols reaffirmed their opposition to the project at that time, with one man warning an “environmental disaster” could result from the project.

Work begins

On Valentine’s Day 1996, Bristol, Virginia received the final permit approval from DEQ. Two weeks later the City Council approved spending $475,000 to pay off the balance and acquire the quarry site.

Throughout that spring and summer the city continued to negotiate with other localities, particularly Sullivan County, to accept its trash. A tentative deal was finalized in late June that was forecast to generate $663,000 annually, but Sullivan officials continued shopping around, newspaper reports show.

“The landfill will be a moneymaker when it opens,” Spangler said in July 1996. “It’s an investment to make money down the road.”

But the market evolved during the three years Bristol, Virginia was securing its permits. Thirty miles away, Johnson City had opened its massive Iris Glen landfill and was seeking trash from area localities. Just down U.S. Route 11E in Tennessee, Browning Ferris Industries expanded its landfill in Hawkins County and was also recruiting new clients.

In the middle of this tipping fee tug-of-war was Sullivan County which saw a private landfill close in 1991 and had been sending its trash elsewhere.

Bristol, Virginia proposed charging Sullivan $25.50 per ton, while charging Bristol, Tennessee and private haulers $24.50 to attract the county’s trash — which was going to Johnson City at that time. BFI’s rate was around $23 and Johnson City was $30 per ton.

Besides angling for the best deal, Sullivan leaders acquired land near Blountville and took initial steps toward constructing its own landfill.

Bristol, Virginia held a formal groundbreaking ceremony at the landfill site on Nov. 19, 1996, and signed a $6 million construction contract a month later. Under that agreement, a Knoxville firm had 240 days to construct the liner and install the leachate system.

A 40,000-square-foot baling room was also being built. Initially the plan was that all trash brought into the landfill would be brought into that building, compacted and baled into blocks weighing 1,400 to 1,600 pounds apiece, city officials said during a March 1997 tour. Items not conducive to baling would be placed into the city’s small, existing landfill.

Prolonging the life of that landfill temporarily saved the city an estimated $3 million in closure costs. Once closed, post-closure monitoring was expected to cost about $100,000 per year for 30 years.

The floor of the quarry was leveled using several feet of rock taken from the sides, Spangler told reporters during the tour. It would then be layered with a burlap material, a plastic liner, the leachate collection pipe system, more rock and another plastic liner.

Borrowing until the end

In July 1997 the Bristol Virginia City Council approved issuing $8.75 million in tax and revenue anticipation notes, to complete the city landfill. The short-term borrowing was to be paid off that December when city tax revenues were collected. Jerry Wolfe, then a council member, expressed concern, since that was projected to be the entirety of the city’s real estate tax collections for the year.

“I just don’t like it,” Wolfe said. “When the payment comes due in December we’re going to be sitting there with no money for the rest of the year.”

Spangler said that route afforded the city a lower interest rate, but admitted it will “put a strain on the city” but said the additional cost had been anticipated since the project began.

The $8.9 million was needed to purchase equipment to operate the landfill and to cover final construction costs, Spangler said.

At this point the city had incurred about $20 million in debt. Over the seven years the city spent developing the quarry landfill, Dennison estimated it would have spent $15 million to haul its trash elsewhere.

“We’re putting in a whole lot more base liner than anyone’s regulations call for [to protect the water and leachate systems],” Dennison told the Herald Courier in September. “To the left of the transfer station we’re building a 500,000-gallon leachate storage facility that will be used during big storms to keep from overwhelming the storm sewer system.”

Construction was expected to be finished in October 1997 but wasn’t finalized until December. The landfill couldn’t open before another inspection and review by DEQ, Dennison said.

Open for business

The Virginia DEQ inspected the landfill for the final time on Feb. 20, 1998, and issued a certificate to operate the following week, with gates opening to accept the first loads of trash on March 2. About 350 tons, including about 70 from the city and the balance from other areas, was unloaded, baled into large cubes and stacked onto the landfill floor.

A synthetic tarp was used to cover the bales overnight, and then removed the next morning to allow stacking more cubes.

City leaders continued speaking with localities within a 100-mile radius about bringing their trash with a goal of bringing in more than 400 tons daily.

Then-Mayor Farnham Jarrard called the facility an “engineering marvel” that “puts the little town of Bristol on the leading edge of technology,” during a May dedication ceremony. | 276-645-2532 

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