For eight months, smoldering mountains of debris exhaled smoke and the odor of sulphur into a Fulton County neighborhood. Though residents still report seeing smoke, officials say a fire at an unlicensed landfill is finally extinguished and the owner must now clean up the land.
What that cleanup will entail isn’t clear, according to the property owner’s attorney.
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The months-long saga has touched every level of government in the state: Nearby residents chastised the South Fulton City Council about possible health effects from the smoke; a representative in the Georgia House held a press conference on the progress of putting out the fire; and the state Environmental Protection Division promised $500,000 in emergency taxpayer funds to put out the fire.
Property owner Tandy Ross Bullock has been arrested three times in connection with the landfill fire at the unlicensed landfill on Bishop Road about 13 miles southwest of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. After giving Bullock more time to extinguish the flames, a Fulton County Superior Court judge on May 20 ruled he had been successful.
The landfill sits at the city borders of Fairburn, Palmetto and South Fulton in a rural community of many retirees. Some residents say they have developed breathing issues from living near the fire. Families have donned masks to garden and spent hundreds of dollars on special home air filters. The woman living closest to the property has filed a lawsuit.
Residents say the property started accepting construction debris 10 to 15 years ago and continued until waste towered 60 feet above nearby homes. Even after years of agreeing to fix the problem and failing, Bullock this past week has again promised to clean up the landfill.
Bullock’s attorney, Charles T. Brant, said Wednesday there is no deadline to have the property fixed up but said they were working with the EPD.
Brant said some of the materials will stay on the property and some will be disposed of, but he wasn’t sure how much would be removed from the site. He also said the fire was put out with chemicals but did not have the details on what chemicals were used. “I’m not schooled in this stuff,” he said.
As for Bullock, Brant said: “He’s just doing what they’re asking him to do.”
When asked for comment about the fire and the next steps, the EPD said they would continue to monitor the property.
Brant said his client has finally been given the space to fix the problem. But the 60-foot-high mountains of debris didn’t appear overnight; they slowly grew under the eye of state and local agencies that took their most serious action after the mountains somehow came ablaze.
Fulton County received complaints starting in 2007 about Bullock running a landfill without a permit and issued a citation against him. Bullock didn’t stop, and the piles became unstable. The EPD first struck a deal with Bullock to reduce the amount of solid waste on the property in 2013, according to a court filing.
The fire started Sept. 20, 2018. Four months later, he told the EPD he was working on extinguishing it, but had been delayed by rain and cold.
In late March, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Constance Russell gave Bullock two more months to snuff the flames, even though the state already withdrew $500,000 from Georgia’s tire clean-up fund to hire a contractor for just that purpose.
After those two months, the judge ruled that the fire had been extinguished.
“It’s not her problem, she made that clear,” South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards said of the judge.
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, said he wants to determine if the land and nearby stream have been polluted by the landfill.
Jane Schaepe, who lives with her husband and six horses on 44 acres less than a mile from the six-acre mountain range, said Wednesday the air around her home has gotten better but they still see and smell smoke.
“We’re just trying to find what we can to fight this,” she said of a group of neighbors who frequent City Council meetings.
The long-time nurse said she is worried about the community’s health.
An air study from Environmental Protection Agency found there were no long-term health effects from exposure to the smoke, but it found worrisome levels of six chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde and the industrial product phosgene — which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was a significant World War 1 chemical weapon.
“There are people who are long, long time citizens of our city who have suffered a lot, I’m sure there are some health issues that will come up,” Edwards said. “It’s a long way from being over.”
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