SPECIAL REPORT: The science behind the Bella Vista stump dump

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How the fire was extinguished after nearly a year of smoke

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BELLA VISTA, Ark. (KNWA) — The Trafalgar Road fire, otherwise known as the stump dump, has been nearly a year-long plague for people living in Bella Vista.

From headaches to health scares, finding a solution to put it out has been anything but a breath of fresh air.

On July 29, 2018, the stump dump fire started smoldering.

At first, the Bella Vista Fire Department (BVFD) arrived, “to find the remnants of a large brush fire that was smoking and steaming,” according to a fire incident report, “the fire was controlled…left to finish burning itself out.” The BVFD left and continued to monitor the area throughout the day.

By December, health officials declared the air within a half-mile radius around the property was at unhealthy levels on one occasion.

An emergency declaration was made by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

In May, the Bella Vista Property Owners Association and the Arkansas Department Of Environmental Quality agreed the POA would be in charge of extinguishing the fire.

Tom Judson, the Chief Operating Officer of the Bella Vista POA, said he did not want to fight the ADEQ in court after learning it would name the POA as a potential responsible party.

The POA took the project head-on, even after Gov. Asa Hutchinson said it would cost $21 to $37 million.

Courtesy: Bella Vista POA

“If they had spent $37 million and then we were found as a potentially responsible party, that’s a big bill,” Judson said.

The fire was out in less than 30 days, and cost $4 million. Judson says when the project is completely finished, he expects it to come in around $4.1 million.

Phase one is complete, which included extinguishing the fire, ensuring that the fire would not come back, and stabilizing the site.

Courtesy: Bella Vista POA

Early on in the project, bad weather was costly.

“There were several days where we had to shut down, and it was costing us $10,000 an hour. We were having to close down because of lightning,” Judson said.

The POA hired three contractors:

Environmental Resources Management, or ERM, served as the project coordinator. The Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health, or CTEH, tested air quality. E-3 Environmental was physically extinguishing the fire.

“I had the entire team go through the budget and cut out $1 million from the budget. We had some money in emergency reserves, and we’ve had to put together the funds in a creative way to come up with the $4 million,” Judson said.

“The POA stepping up and taking care of it, we improved the lives of our property owners and potentially saved the POA.”

Tom Judson, COO at Bella Vista Property Owners Association

What happened beneath the surface?

The ADEQ describes the stump dump as a subterranean fire, a rare sight in Arkansas.

However, Paul Stefan, Principal Partner with ERM, calls it a landfill fire.

Stefan said the fire was actually never underground.

“This was a landfill that was above ground, so they took an area that had a steep slope to it and they put material on top of it. It was a landfill, not a hole in the ground,” Stefan said.

Inside the landfill, they found mostly wood products like stumps and branches, thirteen tires, a mattress, trace amounts of metal banding and rebar, and pipe.

“This was a big pile of debris on the side of a hill that had caught on fire, and to put it out we started on the bottom of it and worked up.”

Paul Stefan, Principal Partner for ERM

Contractors found hot pockets of ash that had been on fire for nearly a year.

Stefan says the northern end of the site had the most amount of ash, where the side was open to the atmosphere.

There were no hazardous substances or hazardous waste. Debris was burning at more than 1,000 degrees.

“You will see large trackhoe excavators digging into the fire, and taking the contents and submerging it into water, and stockpiling it and processing it,” Stefan said.

After phase one wrapped up, Stefan says somewhere between 12,000 to 15,000 bulk cubic yards of material was burned over the course of excavation.

“We compacted that material back in on the site and the compaction was important, because it gets the air out of it and makes it dense. Then we covered it up. Some of the material was very fine grain. We thought it made a good vegetative layer. The last six inches of the sight are mulch material.”

Why not flood the stump dump to extinguish the fire?

There were several different options being considered to extinguish the fire.

The ADEQ says one of the first proposed solutions was fully submerging the dump site in water, essentially creating a man-made lake.

According to Jarrod Zweifel, Associate Director of the Office of Land Resources for ADEQ, “it was one of the most expensive options available.”

He adds, “the costs were so outlandish that it wasn’t something that could be retained.”

Zweifel says the process of flooding the site would have also required a large amount of dirt necessary to build a dam.

The future of the stump dump

The POA and ERM both agreed that with so many unknowns about this fire, the biggest challenge was efficiency.

“We got it done very quickly, so I’m very pleased from the residents point-of-view, but also a financial point-of-view.”

Tom Judson, COO at Bella Vista Property Owners Association

Judson said if the cleanup costs actually amounted to the estimated $21 to $37 million, the POA could have found itself in bankruptcy court. Instead, the project came in right at budget.

Courtesy: Bella Vista POA

The POA now has 60 days to submit phase two to the ADEQ. Phase two includes long-term plans for the site, and deciding on future testing.

When all is said and done, the POA hopes to transform the area into something more green, like covering the land with trees and vegetation.

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