TONTITOWN, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – As Northwest Arkansas grows, the area’s only landfill is falling under increasing scrutiny by local government leaders and residents.

As the Tontitown-based landfill seeks to expand, nearby residents tell KNWA that they are concerned the landfill’s fumes may be a health hazard.

A community’s concerns

Kenneth Lovett is one of several Tontitown residents who’ve submitted a combined total of over 150 complaints to state regulators about the Eco-Vista Landfill since May of 2021. Lovett is also a member of the Tontitown Air Quality Committee.

“What we have here,” starts Lovett, “is a smell that we don’t know what it is, that is attacking people.”

Mark Calcagni, who lives near the landfill, shares Lovett’s concern.

“The worst part of it has been the odors and the gases,” said Calcagni.

“It [the gases] causes your eyes to burn, your throat to burn,” said Lovett. “You know, it becomes hard to breathe.”

Tontitown Mayor Angie Russell said she’s also concerned about the gases she and the others believe come from the landfill, operated by the company Waste Management.

Russell lives next to the landfill, and the worries over fumes are one of the main reasons she ran for office in 2022.

“They make us sick. They make us dizzy. We get immediate headaches,” said Russell.

Giving KNWA a tour of her property, Russell pointed out her trees browning on the side facing the dump site and said she believes the landfill is responsible.

“What is it doing to our citizens,” she wondered aloud. “What is it doing to our citizens?”

Response from Waste Management and state regulators

Waste Management declined KNWA’s request for an interview and didn’t answer specific questions. WM did issue a statement to KNWA, saying, in part, “the staff of Eco-Vista is committed to adhering to guidelines outlined by local, state, and federal government entities as well as our own stringent internal policies.” You can read their full statement at the bottom of this article.

State regulators at the Department of Environment and Energy, also referred to as ADEQ, denied KNWA’s interview request as well. But the agency did write in May of 2022 that after dozens of inspections since May of 2021, the landfill received only one violation, in April of 2022.

At the time of writing in November of 2022, the landfill has since received two more violations that are visible on public records. None of these three violations were directly related to air quality.

Complaints about inspection quality

However, Russell said when she’s observed inspectors from the state coming to check the air, she doesn’t see them running what she considers real tests.

“They just come out and they kind of walk around and smell, and they go sit in their truck and write down whatever it is on their reports,” said Russell.

When we asked the Department of Environment and Energy about these inspections, it did confirm that their complaint inspectors are not doing ambient air quality testing at facilities, writing that it’s a “cost-prohibitive” process. 

But when KNWA requested to see the documentation for how great that cost is, the state said it didn’t have those records.

The state also said it had no documented plan for when health complaints are significant enough to require chemical air quality inspections.

Leaving Tontitown residents to wonder if their air is safe or toxic.

No chemistry-based complaint inspections required

“They [state regulators] need to get somebody out here to do some testing,” says Russell. “That’s just the bottom line.”

But under current regulations, inspectors are not actually required to do this air testing.

The federal Clean Air Act does set clear maximum safety levels for six air pollutants like carbon monoxide.

And for landfills, state regulators oversee certain, scheduled emissions tests that are outlined in the landfill’s permits.

But University of Arkansas Environmental Law Professor Sara Guzman said that regulators are typically not responsible for spot-checking the chemicals in the air surrounding a landfill.

“We end up in situations where we have communities that could be impacted by air pollution and our laws don’t always get there,” said Guzman. “I think that’s the reality.”

Guzman said in these cases, it’s often up to citizens or cities to pursue a civil suit.

For Tontitown, that would mean taking on Waste Management, a company for which multiple market research firms value around $64 billion.

“Ultimately,” said Guzman, “they [Tontitown residents] have the burden of proof. They have to show that this is a problem.”

Tontitown takes action

Despite state regulators saying on-site chemical complaint inspections were too expensive, Tontitown recently bought its air quality monitor and supplies for less than $1500.

But as Lovett explains, the city quickly realized it was limited by what it can check with this equipment.

Each air quality test requires using a tube that can only be used once and can only detect one chemical.

“It’s more of an issue of trying to figure out the proper tube to test,” said Lovett.

So to ensure they can more easily identify what toxin could be in the air, Lovett said the city decided to wait until the landfill’s fumes are at their worst, during winter, before continuing these tests more actively.

In the meantime, Tontitown passed a resolution in November of 2022 asking state regulators not to approve Eco-Vista’s proposed expansion, or at least delay the expansion until the city was satisfied that its concerns were adequately addressed.

But this resolution doesn’t legally compel the state to reject Waste Management’s expansion request. And despite becoming Tontitown’s leader, Russell admits she often feels powerless on the very issue she ran to solve.

“As a mayor, I don’t know how to control this or take care of this problem,” said Russell. “And I really do feel like that this issue needs to be taken care of.”

Extra reading: Waste Management’s full statements

In July of 2022, Waste management responded to a series of specific questions with the following statement:

WM is committed to being both a community partner in Tontitown and a steward of the environment. Safety and People are two pillars on which WM firmly stands. Eco Vista is an integral part of infrastructure in Northwest Arkansas. The staff at Eco Vista is committed to adhering to guidelines outlined by local, state and federal government entities as well as our own stringent internal policies. In recent weeks, we have worked to provide channels for all citizens of Tontitown to interact with the team at Eco Vista. The email address was established for email communications, and the website was developed to provide information to all residents. WM sent a letter to inform all area residents of the new website and how to sign up for a newsletter, the first of which went out in May to all of those that subscribed via the website.

Eco Vista’s most recent community outreach has included working with local non-profits and schools, providing tours and educational presentations for various organizations and working with our local operations teams to provide support for community events. As a community partner, WM is committed to working towards a more sustainable tomorrow.

When KNWA reached back out to Waste Management in late October of 2022 to see if the company wanted to update their statement before publication, the Eco-Vista Landfill operator wrote:

WM is proud of its efforts to improve the sustainability of Northwest Arkansas. Our Eco Vista landfill is an essential piece of infrastructure in Northwest Arkansas, providing the only Class I and Class IV landfill in the growing region. We look forward to continuing the expansion process.