Concerns about benzene and other health threats emanating from an extensive and long-burning underground fire have prompted at least one family in Bella Vista, Arkansas to file a lawsuit.
Bella Vista resident Curtis Macomber and his family are suing Brown’s Tree Care, alleging the company created a public health hazard by burning brush on the property, triggering an underground fire that has been burning since July.
The fire is smoldering at the site of a “stump dump,” where the Bella Vista Property Owners Association once operated a collection area for residents’ leaves, tree stumps, branches, and brush. Bella Vista Property Owners Association leased the stump dump in 2008 and shut it down and capped it with soil in 2016 when it reached capacity.
Bella Vista firefighters dispatched to the area on July 29 and discovered smoke and the remains of a brush fire on land owned by Brown’s Tree Care. Local freighters, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, and the Environmental Protection Agency have since discovered the fire may be burning as much as 60 feet deep and that safely extinguishing it is beyond the city’s resources and capabilities.
Benzene is a colorless, flammable liquid often identified by its sweet odor. The chemical is a byproduct of petrochemical plants, oil and gas refineries, coal-burning operations, and motor vehicle exhaust. Benzene can also occur naturally in forest fires, but the levels emitted from the old Bella Vista stump dump indicate that more than just wood and yard clippings are buried there.
Short-term exposures to benzene at high levels can often include drowsiness, dizziness, rapid or irregular heartbeat, headaches, tremors, confusion and other signs of narcosis. At extremely high levels, benzene exposure can cause unconsciousness and death.
Exposure to benzene over the long-term, even in low concentrations, is much more dangerous and has been linked to anemia, Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), and several subtypes of the blood cancer.
According to KVSM of Fort Smith, Arkansas, the Macomber family’s lawsuit seeks medical costs and lost wages stemming from the toxic smoke they say they’ve been forced to breathe as it wafts over their property. The lawsuit also seeks damages for diminished property value because of the fire. The family asks for a jury a trial.
In the meantime, local authorities are working with state and federal officials to come up with a solution for the fire.
“We basically have only one tool in our kit bag, and that’s water,” Bella Vista Mayor Peter Christie said, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “The problem is … that particular piece of property is a watershed for Lake Ann.” Extinguishing the flames with water would risk contaminating the lake with unknown substances, he said.
Other solution, such as excavating all the material or building a berm around the old dump site before flooding it, are still on the table, but the city lacks the money to take those approaches.
The owner of Brown’s Tree Care denies burning brush on the property.