Gina Yielding watches her grandchildren cover their mouths and run inside when they visit grandma’s house.
It’s been that way for five months as sulphur-smelling smoke seeps from 60-foot-high mountains of debris smoldering half a mile from her Fulton County home.
The fire has been burning since Sept. 20 at an unlicensed landfill about 13 miles southwest of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, sitting at the borders of Fairburn, Palmetto and South Fulton. Despite being jailed twice for failing to extinguish the fire, the owner has still not taken action. It’s not clear if the landfill is currently accepting material while the fire burns, as there was a sign that said “temporarily closed — opening soon” on the front gates Wednesday.
Federal health authorities said in a report Monday that air quality tests show the smoke isn’t expected to cause long-term health problems for nearby residents, but contact can cause nausea along with headaches and irritation to the throat and eyes. They warned those with existing breathing and heart conditions to avoid the area.
State Rep. Debra Bazemore, D-Riverdale, and Georgia environmental officials said this week that they will use emergency funds to extinguish the six-acre fire. How much it will cost to fully extinguish isn’t known, said state Environmental Protection Division spokesman Kevin Chambers, because they are still determining the cost, but how it’s being paid for is certain.
The Georgia Solid Waste Trust Fund collects $1 on every new tire sold in the state. The 20-year-old fund is typically used to address abandoned dumps where there’s no responsible party, according to EPD’s Chambers. “…In this case, we know the responsible party and we’ve tried to get cooperation,” Chambers said. Even before the fire began, the EPD spent five years negotiating with the landfill owner but was unable to get him to stop collecting trash there.
Bazemore said she got involved in the case recently to make sure they tap the state funds quickly because “the legal action could draw out forever.”
Officials have characterized property owner Tandy Ross Bullock as uncooperative.
After Bullock’s attorneys did not respond to multiple calls from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a reporter approached them at a South Fulton court hearing for one of Bullock’s related civil cases to ask for comment about the emergency state funds. They said they were unaware state funds were being sought for the fire. They refused comment on the landfill.
‘We still have a problem’
Bullock has been jailed twice over the fire, said Bill Edwards, who was the county commissioner over that area of south Fulton before he was sworn in as the first mayor of the City of South Fulton in April 2017.
The East Point Jail has a record of Bullock being booked Nov. 19 on a charge of illegal burning and being released the next day on a bond of $500,000. Edwards said Bullock was soon put back in jail once they realized the fire was still burning. A clerk at the jail said Bullock did six days on that second stint, which started Dec. 6.
“Putting people in jail is one thing, but when they got out we still have a problem,” Edwards said.
But the problem goes back a decade, to when Edwards was a commissioner and the commission denied Bullock’s landfill.
Bullock has tried to have his property rezoned twice, according to county commission minutes, including in 2008 when he sought a landfill designation to process and store wood, concrete, stone and tree debris. Despite both denials, Bullock apparently went ahead with the landfill, which neighbors said started about 10 to 15 years ago.
As far back as 2007, the county received complaints about Bullock running a landfill without a permit and issued a citation against him. But Bullock didn’t stop and the trash pile grew so high it became unstable, authorities said.
The EPD first made a deal with Bullock to reduce the amount of solid waste on the property in 2013, according to a court filing. During the years of back and forth, Bullock claimed the agency was “being used as a weapon by a competing business,” according to court documents.
Then the mountain of garbage began to burn. Four months later, in December 2018, he told the EPD that he had enlisted a retired firefighter to help him extinguish it, but he said they were delayed by rain and cold. Apparently that was good enough for the EPD, which already had logged years of negotiations over the landfill.
EPD’s Chambers now says extinguishing the fire will require a specialized contractor to tear apart the trash and get to the heart of the heat. And considering officials feel Bullock has been uncooperative, Rep. Bazemore said “we will have to have the police on site.”
‘It was terrible’
The mayor said his constituents came to this part of Fulton for a quiet country life.
“It’s an older community, mostly rural, people have a lot of land and they’ve been there a long time, and they’re used to their quality of life being a certain way,” Edwards said.
Ola Goddard moved into the area 63 years ago when it was a country town. Now, the 85-year-old lives less than two football fields from the steeping trash heap.
When the fire began in September, the smoke was so bad she said she couldn’t leave the house without a mask.
“My eyes burned, I had the headache and coughed, so it was terrible,” she said.
She said smoke forced her daughter living in a mobile home beside her to get an air filter. After a few days, it had turned black. She said they brought the filter to the city council to show them.
Goddard said she has reported the dump to every agency she could. Inspectors would come, but nothing would change. So she and Yielding don’t trust that emergency funds will fix anything.
“We don’t have a whole lot of confidence in anything they tell us,” Yielding said.
The money from the state’s tire fund, Chamber said, is expected to be approved by the Board of Natural Resources at its meeting Friday on St. Simons Island.
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