Geomembrane (black panel) that will wrap around the sidewall gas collection system, providing a seal that prevents the release of odorous gases. Courtesy of City of Bristol.
Geomembrane (black panel) that will wrap around the sidewall gas collection system, providing a seal that prevents the release of odorous gases. Courtesy of city of Bristol.

Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares and the city of Bristol have reached an agreement on the lawsuit he filed over the city’s smelly landfill, and a consent decree has been entered by Judge Clarence Jenkins of the Richmond Circuit Court, the attorney general announced Tuesday.

The city will be assessed a civil penalty of $377,697, but that amount will be suspended if the city completes the agreed-upon injunctive relief items, according to the decree. Those actions include construction of a sidewall odor mitigation system, upgrades of the wells and pumps within the landfill, implementation of an additional cover over the waste, intensive mapping and measurement of the landfill, and the ultimate installation of a cover.

“I’ve traveled to Bristol, talked to Virginians, and our neighbors in Tennessee, firsthand about the issue caused by the Bristol landfill. I’m thrilled that my office has been able to reach an agreement with the City of Bristol, which will bring relief and solutions to the community. Additionally, because this consent decree has been signed by the court, it will hold the City accountable to the promises they’ve made,” Miyares said in a statement.

The city issued a statement that says: “The City of Bristol is pleased this allows us to move forward and resolve challenges at the Bristol Quarry Landfill by placing the remediation efforts and timeline into a court order. The final consent decree includes very minor design changes approved by all parties.”

The decree came about after negotiations intended to resolve the claims and avoid the cost of a lawsuit, it states.

In January, a lawsuit was filed over ongoing odor and air emissions problems at its landfill by Miyares on behalf of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Virginia Waste Management Board and the Virginia Air Pollution Control Board.

The lawsuit sought a civil penalty of $32,500 per day per violation for a number of violations of the state’s environmental laws and regulations. According to the suit, the city continued to violate Virginia Air Pollution Control permits, Air Pollution Control laws and regulations, solid waste permits, the Virginia Waste Management Act and waste regulations.

The problems began nearly two and a half years ago, when neighbors of the landfill on Valley Drive began to file complaints about the odor, which often smells like rotten garbage mixed with a chemical odor. People began complaining of headaches and trouble breathing and sleeping, and some said they had to leave home at times because the smell permeated their residences.

A combination of factors is causing the smell, according to a report released in April 2022 by a panel of experts convened by DEQ to study the problem. The factors include a reaction taking place within the buried waste, a likely failure of the subsurface sidewall liner system, elevated temperatures and settlement, the report states.

Within 30 days, the city must also pay the $92,000 cost of that study, which was initially paid for by DEQ, the decree states.

According to the decree, if the city satisfactorily completes the required actions and demonstrates the money spent for improvements at the landfill, it may petition DEQ for reimbursement of up to $2 million of funding set aside by the Virginia General Assembly to assist Bristol with resolution of ongoing environmental issues at the landfill.

The city needs the money. Bristol officials have said they expect the total remediation cost to be more than $60 million and said recently there is a nearly $29 million deficit in the solid waste portion of the upcoming 2023-24 city budget. The money is needed to pay for work currently underway and planned during the next fiscal year.

To help pay for the shortfall, the city council is considering doubling the city’s trash collection fee.

In January, Southwest Virginia lawmakers asked the General Assembly to provide $12 million for the landfill, but that money stalled when the legislature adjourned without a budget agreement for the next fiscal year.

According to the attorney general’s news release Tuesday, the city is about halfway through implementing a sidewall odor mitigation system to eliminate the odor issues. The deadline for completion of that work is June 14 and the city is on track to meet it, the release states.

The city has submitted a plan for deploying an ethyl vinyl alcohol cover system, which would tie into the landfill’s liner, according to the release.

The city’s stormwater management plan is due April 30, Miyares said in the release.

Drilling for a total of 31 wells began the week of March 27. The wells will remove gas and liquids from the dump, the release states.

In addition, the city must submit monthly compliance reports, and the March report is due April 10, under the decree.

The city’s statement released Tuesday also said the city is “fully committed to addressing and resolving challenges at the Bristol quarry landfill in an environmentally sound manner. The costs associated with this project are staggering and the City of Bristol continues to explore all funding options to minimize the impact on our residents.”

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...