BELLA VISTA, Ark. (KFSM) — After months of frustration and millions of dollars to clean up, how did the Bella Vista stump dump become such a mess?
Last July, off Trafalgar Road in Bella Vista, debris underground caught fire, likely sparked by a pile of burning brush...and then smoke from underground began to billow up into the air.
At first, everyone thought only tree stumps were burning and the fire would burn itself out.
Bella Vista firefighters assured residents they had nothing to worry about.
"It's just an irritant, it's more smoke," said Ronnie Crupper, Bella Vista Fire Battalion Chief. "It's no different than someone burning leaves just down the street."
But the fire kept burning all summer. By fall, people living nearby say their families were getting sick.
"The day he came home passing out was the day they said it was moderate and you can't tell me the air quality is not affecting everybody here," said a neighbor.
Browns Tree Care owns the property now, but owner Cletus Wilkins says he didn't know what was looming underground when they bought it.
"We didn't do this. We didn't set the logs in there. There is a big crater when you look down there. There is 40 feet of flaming logs that are there," Wilkins said.
In August, Cletus told 5NEWS that the gates to the area have been open for 41 years and a lot of stumps, construction debris and other things have been dumped at this site. Some 50 to 70 feet underground.
Neighbors say the unknowns make them nervous.
"There has been a lot of talk about what's really in there," said a neighbor.
Then the Bella Vista Fire Department said there was no safe way to stop the smoldering.
Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie lives by the former stump dump and quickly realized they couldn't handle this emergency on their own.
In December 2018 he said, "The time has come now to have our political conference at both the federal and state level to pick up the torch and start running with it, because we've been running with it for almost five months now, and to be very frank, we need help, and our residents need help."
In the past couple of months, the ADEQ and EPA have taken their investigation further.
Reports show that they found tires, car parts, construction debris and more waste that could give off dangerous fumes when burned.
Neighbors were told to keep out.
Stacey Lewis lives less than a thousand feet away from the fire.
"It's just anxiety. You know it's coming for you and you know it's going to be there, you're just not sure when," said Lewis.
By December 2018, health officials declared the air around the property was "unhealthy" and industrial chemical Benzene was detected within the boundary of the former dump at non-toxic levels.
That's when Governor Asa Hutchinson declared an emergency to speed up and pitch in funds for clean up.
After the first of the year, the ADEQ and EPA installed air quality monitoring stations around Trafalgar Road, where they say levels are in a safe range.
But headaches turn to heartaches and health problems for many families living near the fire.
Steven Johnson has five kids and says one of his sons is sick.
"We are not sure exactly what's wrong with the lung but that they're saying that it's underdeveloped and the smoke may be irritating that and now they're talking about removing part of the lung," Johnson said.
Contractor EnSafe offered seven cleanup options ranging in cost from $4 to $37 million dollars, but a plan has not been decided yet.
So far, the Forestry Commission has cut a fire break around the burn site and crews have built an access road and temporary low dam to start the process.
Officials say these measures have saved taxpayers money.
It's still unknown how long it will take and how many millions it will cost to put an end to this stump dump fire.
Two lawsuits have been filed in connection to the stump dump.
The Curtis Macomber family is suing Browns Tree Care for medical costs and lost wages related to the smoke and this week Bella Vista resident Jim Parsons filed a lawsuit against Cooper Communities and the POA, two entities he feels should pay for the cleanup.