Burn baby burn: fire sparks dump controversy

Poisoned ground? County wakes up to illegal dump

Palettes and pumps, windows and wheelchairs, rusted cars and rotting wood. Engines, ovens, tire piles, leaking drums, dishwashers, oil and propane tanks, asphalt and asbestos shingles, toilets– and, yes– even kitchen sinks.

All up in flames.

But even after the smoke from the January 4 fire had cleared, County officials recorded enough debris still clogging the Keswick property of Cecil and Doris Gardner to make the above list seem almost insignificant.

No one knows exactly what went up in the acre that burned– only that the possibilities on the 16-acre parcel fronting Campbell Road appeared limitless. According to relatives of the Gardners, much of the rubbish was construction debris from a local roofing company. Add to this a flea market's worth of novelty items like ice cream trucks and soda machines, and a fleet of broken-down autos from a hobbyist's garage.

But on January 4, firefighters could only conjecture about the composition of the piles as random explosions detonated around them, even blasting through the roof of an old milk truck 50 feet from where they were working adding to the column of "black, noxious smoke" pouring into the air, according to one report in the County file.

The blaze, visible from several miles away, consumed a shed and 12 vehicles, according to a County report. "It burnt the electric line belonging to Virginia Power, which caused the power to be off for several people until it was repaired. The black smoke wafted through the neighborhood. There was a multitude of materials that were burning that could give off toxic or harmful fumes," the report says.

A month later, the County issued a press release which claimed that, in responding to the emergency at the Gardner home, officials had "discovered a major illegal junkyard."

Neighbors along Campbell Road agree that the Gardner's backyard business constitutes a major illegal junkyard, but they roll their eyes at the notion that the County just "discovered" it.

"The County has basically turned a blind eye to this dump for thirty years," says neighbor Kate Bailey. "As a result, it has led this family to believe that its existence is acceptable to County officials. I really hold the County more at fault than the landowners."

In fact, County records reveal that neighbors were complaining back as far as 1976. The pattern of activity, shown on a timeline produced by the County, goes something like this:

A zoning or other violation is alleged. The Gardners remove a few cars or truckloads of trash. The citation is dismissed.

A new violation is generated. The Gardners don't respond. Yet another citation is issued. The Gardners again remove some junk. And so on– for years.

A 1976 county memo by then-zoning administrator J. Benjamin Dick is revealing: "Mrs. Gardner said she could fool the county and in fact had," Dick wrote. "She has a perpetual building permit for additional rooms to be added to their house... Records ought to be checked for building inspections."

Today's zoning law requires all private landfills over 10,000 square feet (about a fifth of an acre) to have a permit. The Gardners have argued that their unpermitted 16-acre behemoth was legal because it existed prior to the 1969 zoning ordinance that regulated private landfills.

But from 1976 through 1984, according to a chronology of the Gardner property produced by the County, officials made a series of visits to the junkyard to investigate violations, complaints, and in 1984, to deal with a fire that burned for almost two weeks.

In 2003, the dump appeared on the county's radar for the final time prior to the January blaze. Two onsite visits from then-zoning inspector Steve Smith resulted in violation reports. He found "trash/refuse/inoperable vehicles," but noted that the junkyard "has not been added to or altered," and dubbed it grandfathered– or "legal non-conforming" in County parlance.

Smith's violation report dated January 28, 2003, claimed that "cleanup is under way." In a follow-up site inspection, the violation was declared "abated." His notes exclaim, "I shall return!"

Indeed he did. In October of that year, another violation was alleged, and on November 12, the violation was again considered "abated."

Yet, based on its present scale it seems the dump grew steadily over the years ­ and continued to grow even after the recent fire. During a January 26 inspection, officials noted that "a large quantity of metal that appears to be siding scraps" had been added since their inspection on the day of the fire.

But a long lull separated the 2003 violations from earlier enforcement actions. For fifteen years, the neighbors weren't complaining, notes a County file.

The neighbors contend that they shouldn't be responsible for enforcing zoning, fire, solid, and hazardous waste codes.

Had the laws been strictly enforced, residents say, the current mess would not exist. Neighbor Pat Napoleon calls the accumulation "an environmental disaster." She and others along Campbell Road worry about their wells, and about their kids playing in the neighborhood creek.

It's no Love Canal yet. So far, the only drinking water tests conducted on three nearby wells found no major contamination. But it can take years for contaminants to reach wells through the underground aquifer, and Napoleon one of those whose wells was tested isn't satisfied. She and others are adamant that soil and water tests be conducted on the Gardner property.

While the junkyard may not qualify for the Superfund, residents are angry that the DEQ has allowed a county zoning department to be in charge of the cleanup of a possibly toxic landfill.

In order to prompt action, a group of about 15 residents have come together to make sure any possible environmental impact of the site is thoroughly assessed.

Their efforts seem to be paying off. The DEQ originally had no plans to test, but now say they aren't ruling it out. The determination not to test, after all, was only based on "two visual assessments," according to County zoning administrator Amelia McCulley.

Jed Pascarella, Environmental Program Planner for the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) the state agency that performs environmental risk assessments says that another state agency, the Department of Emergency Management, "closed the case as an imminent threat." That ruled out bringing in the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But it doesn't rule out the DEQ conducting its own soil and water tests. In fact, asbestos shingles were found "shoved" into a stream on an adjoining property, while the burial ground for asphalt shingles was located beside a creek, according to January reports by the County.

The decision to test will be based on materials found "as the cleanup progresses," says Pascarella. The agency makes a visit to the site "every two or three weeks." During those visits, the DEQ will be on the lookout for ground-up asbestos in the soil or signs of chemicals having been released into the environment.

The only hazardous materials still on site, according to Pascarella, are paint, a few batteries, lead sheathing, computer monitors, and a few cans of solvent. What lies underground, he concedes, is unknown.

Yet it's what may have been buried that worries neighbors the most. For years, they say, they've heard and seen the Gardners backfilling and bulldozing– activities Pascarella says he hasn't heard about.

"We have a lot of allegations, but no factual information has been submitted to us," he says, referring to things like photos, sworn statements from people who saw refuse trucks on the property, and other eyewitness accounts.

Napoleon says both the County and the DEQ have been made aware of the bulldozing. She told Pascarella, she says, and she has said it to the County, "over and over again; there was constant digging, bulldozing, burning, burying."

In addition to a "shingle disposal area" found near a creek, Pascarella says the site contains a large "burn pit" measuring eight-feet wide, 30-feet long, and five-feet deep.

Neighbors fear the Gardners may have been burning hazardous waste in that pit for years. They report having regularly smelled burning– "not like leaves or ordinary trash," says neighbor Napoleon, "but something noxious."

Residents Kate Bailey, Bonnie Stevens, and Anne Fox also say they've smelled acrid smoke and fumes.

In fact, neighbors believe that neither the January fire nor the much larger one that occurred in 1984 were accidents.

While the recent fire resulted from open burning in the junkyard, the 1984 conflagration came on the heels of a neighbor's complaint about the stockpiling of tires.

Former Keswick resident Gary Beasley says he was worried about the fire hazard when he filed his complaint about the tires with the County on February 7, 1984.

The next day, then fire marshal Ira Cortez advised the Gardners of a fire code violation, and on February 9, he mailed them a certified letter with official notification.

On February 10, the tires went up in flames.

Residents fear that leftover sludge from that fire may still be buried deep in the soil. In a letter to the County, adjacent homeowner Kate Bailey asks, "Is it news to the County that every burning tire releases two gallons of oil in addition to a host of other hazardous and carcinogenic materials... to eventually leach into our ground water, run off onto our adjoining properties, and ultimately contribute to the mess we have all made of the Chesapeake Bay?"

While the number of tires that burned in the January 2005 fire is anyone's guess, the 1984 volume "far exceeded" the legal storage maximum of 2,500 cubic feet, according to reports from the fire marshal.

A newly released County fact sheet on the dump announces that the DEQ is just learning of the first fire– though in 1988 the agency conducted a statewide survey of Virginia tire piles which, according to information found on the DEQ website, included every city and county in the state.

"A lot of piles were missed in that survey," says Pascarella.

In the wake of the recent fire, neighbors say they've "hammered" county and state officials for information, even requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

One of their greatest concerns about the cleanup, they say, is that the County is letting some "responsible parties" off the hook. High on their list is local roofing company W.A. Lynch, where Cecil Gardner has been employed.

The massive piles of asphalt, tiles, and rooftop cooling units, two stacks of asbestos shingles, and other products of a roofer's trade aren't just the Gardners' responsibility, Keswick residents claim.

Zoning administrator McCulley says the County intends to fully enforce the cleanup, though only the Gardners are currently charged with the task.

"Our goal is compliance," says McCulley. "We want this site cleaned up. When they stop making progress with the cleanup, then we'll go after every responsible party."

The Gardners face a formidable list of violations.

For one thing, McCulley points out, their land isn't zoned for industrial use. Also falling under County jurisdiction is violation of the Trash Ordinance, which allows for criminal prosecution. Fire and Rescue has cited them for violations involving improper storage of hazardous and combustible materials also allowing for criminal prosecution. In addition, the state DEQ has fined the couple for solid waste code violations for operating an "unpermitted storage-disposal-of-waste facility."

For each of these violations, others who dumped on the property could also be charged. But McCulley says the County will only pursue other violators if the Gardners don't complete the cleanup and claims that they have no proof that others were using the property as a cheap landfill.

"We have no evidence that Lynch Roofing– the company– was bringing materials there," says McCulley.

But neighbors say they've seen many W.A. Lynch trucks entering the Gardners' property loaded with materials– and coming out empty.

Pat Napoleon recalls that in 1991, while she was employed as a teacher at Stone Robinson Elementary School, W.A. Lynch replaced a portion of the school's roof. The operation, she says, included drilling close enough to her classroom to be distracting, and she recalls seeing Cecil Gardner working on the project.

During that period– which school building superintendent George Shifflett says lasted through the entire summer and involved the replacement of 14,500 square feet of roof Napoleon remembers being out sick one day and watching as "convoys" of W.A. Lynch trucks came and went at the Gardners' property all day long.

"Going in full and coming out empty," she says.

Napoleon's husband, Leo, recalls passing by the school one day on his way home and seeing a Lynch truck loaded with roofing debris pulling out of Stone Robinson. Both he and the driver were headed for Campbell Road, where Leo says he "watched the truck pull into the Gardners'."

Another neighbor, Mike Svetz, has his own observations. In 1987, a crew from W.A. Lynch replaced his home's old tin roof. Svetz a project manager for a builder says the roof was loaded with lead paint but remembers hearing that "Cecil was taking it home." He recalls seeing Mr. Gardner leaving in a truck filled with discarded roofing materials and returning a short time later. Svetz thinks the return came far too quickly for the truck to have gone to the County's only public dump, the Ivy Landfill, now a transfer point called the Materials Utilization Center.

"I believe our old tin roof filled with the lead paint went to the Gardners," states Svetz.

But if eyewitness accounts aren't enough, there's also the word of the Gardners' own relatives, as recorded in County files. In one memo, two Gardner relatives allegedly told an inspector on January 5, 2005, that Cecil Gardner collected trash "to supplement his income." According to the inspector's report, Cecil worked for W.A. Lynch Roofing, "and materials from their job sites are major components of what is on the property."

Will Lynch be investigated for its alleged role?

"I haven't heard the Gardners claim that Lynch did have something to do with it," McCulley says.

Perhaps, given the mound of documents the issue has generated, McCulley has forgotten a letter she received from fire inspector John M. Jones on January 31, 2005. In that letter, Jones says that Doris Gardner "stated that the roofing company her husband worked for has volunteered to help with the cleanup."

A spokesperson for Lynch, declining to give her name, claims the company is not involved in the cleanup– and that Cecil Gardner is no longer a Lynch employee. On the matter of whether the company has contributed to the mess, owner William A. Lynch Jr. has not returned several phone calls.

Doris Gardner, while declining to be interviewed, says that she'll have "several things to say" at a June 29 meeting the County is convening at Stone Robinson School.

The upcoming meeting has already sparked controversy, according to Napoleon. The County is only sending notices to residents who live within a mile of the site and residents feel it should be advertised to a wider audience, Napoleon says.

But if Doris Gardner originally contended that W.A. Lynch was helping with the cleanup, her stance has apparently shifted. Gardner tells a reporter that there are no Lynch materials on the site, and the roofing company has nothing to do with the problem.

"It's our mess," says Gardner, "and we're cleaning it up."

That strikes some neighbors as unfair if the eyewitness allegations about Lynch vehicles are correct, and since the Gardners have stated in a private meeting with the County that they can't afford the cleanup. "We don't have the money," son Chris is quoted in one County document.

Mike Svetz, who has known Cecil Gardner for years, says he believes "Mr. Gardner is a victim, too."

It's not clear what sort of "supplemental income"– referred to by the Gardners' relatives– might have been received from Cecil's employer, but it's clear that the cost of legal disposal of construction debris is high.

According to its website, the Materials Utilization Center charges a tipping fee of $61 per ton. If a typical dump truck carries 10 tons, that's $610 for a fully loaded truck.

Anyone offering to accept a load for less than that might find himself doing a land office business– literally.

Today, the Gardners are discovering the high cost of proper disposal as they struggle to remove the hazardous materials and other flotsam that clutters their property. One local recycler, Coiner's Scrap Metal, says it has made eight pick-ups in three and a half months, and neighbors acknowledge seeing refuse-laden trucks– leaving the Gardner property.

The County now concedes that it erred in assuming that the landfill was grandfathered. After the 2005 fire, officials went back and examined aerial photographs shot "soon after the 1969 zoning ordinance was adopted," according to a new County release. "The photographs show that a junkyard did not exist on the property at that time." The Gardners had just moved there in 1969.

When zoning inspector Smith declared on November 12, 2003 that the site was grandfathered, "according to aerial photos that pre-date the ordinance," he based his conclusion on the wrong aerial photos and the wrong ordinance, says County spokesperson Lee Catlin. She says Smith was referencing later photos, and a 1980 zoning ordinance that had nothing to do with junkyard regulation. Smith could not be reached for comment.

But even if officials mistakenly believed the dump was "grandfathered," its owners still were not allowed to "add to or alter" its use after the ordinance was enacted.

Yet reports from the 1970s and 1980s reveal that they did just that. The County's own chronology of the property states that, during an inspection by then zoning administrator, Dick, on August 2, 1976, the Gardners were informed that they had "expanded a non-conforming use." The 1984 violation from fire official Ira Cortez for the "storage of over 2500 cubic feet of tires, wood, and other combustible materials" also shows that officials knew the junkyard had indeed been altered or added to since 1969.

For that matter, the finding that the junkyard is not grandfathered should not be a new finding at all. If the aerial photos were shot "soon after" the 1969 ordinance, neighbors wonder why the County needed 35 years to decipher them.

Today the County claims that it will closely oversee the dismantling of the illegal landfill, with the Gardners paying for every penny of that operation. As long as they continue to do so, it seems the County won't be asking questions about where the debris came from, or who else contributed to the mess.

"The Gardners are making an extraordinary effort," says McCulley.

Fronting their home on Campbell Road is a large, well-kept lawn. Behind the house, however, the yard gradually melts into a wooly stretch of once-pristine woodlands where a well-worn road leads into the moonscape of rubbish.

For now, at least, the trucks traveling that road are heading out full.