It was early Friday when Stephanie Hartford says she walked out the front door of her trailer to smoke a cigarette and saw a river of mud and garbage flowing through her yard.
Five days later, several inches of still-drying mud covered portions of more than a half-dozen yards at Meadowlark Properties, a trailer park to the north of the Billings Regional Landfill. Embedded in the thick mud are bits of particle board, chunks of shingles, pieces of wood and a variety of plastic wrappers and discarded packaging.
"It sounded like a river coming though," she said. "It was pretty gruesome."
The flood of soil and debris occurred when a drainage ditch on the north side of the landfill breached after a period of heavy rainfall, either late May 31 or early Friday, Billings Public Works Deputy Director Vern Heisler said Wednesday.
The ditch carries stormwater from inactive portions of the landfill to a nearby retaining pond, he said, meaning that none of the water that poured across Hartford’s yard contained any runoff from the area where garbage is being dumped.
“It would be running off of areas that either have not been developed or have been completely closed and capped,” Heisler said. “We have no reason to believe there was any contamination in that water.”
The presence of garbage, he said, likely owes to strong winds that blew through the area in the days before the storms, pushing loose trash downhill and into the ditch.
Still, some Meadowlark residents whose lawns and driveways remain coated with the washout’s aftermath complain that the smell associated with the landfill has gotten worse in recent days — a development they attributed to the debris matted to their properties and under their trailers.
“In the evening, it smells like a sewer,” Hartford said, watching her two children hopping on a trampoline in her front yard. “I’m worried about the sanitariness of everything that washed in from the dump … I’m growing strawberries. Do I eat them?”
Hartford is one of 10 Meadowlark residents who had filed complaints with the city as of Wednesday afternoon. Across the street, Dottie Ory and her husband, Rusty Ory, surveyed the muddy detritus plastered to their lawn and to the sides of their trailer and shed.
“I get disgusted every time I come out,” Dottie said. At one point, her miniature dachshund became mired in the backyard, and she said she had to run out of the home in her slippers to pull him out.
The couple has for 17 years lived in a single-wide trailer along the southwestern edge of the park. They have nine dogs, three of which Dottie said have gotten sick since the flood pushed the muddy debris through their yard and under the trailer, stacking up a foot high in some places against the wire fence that separates their backyard from the landfill.
“Late afternoons, after the sun’s been out, the smell is just unreal,” Rusty said.
Regardless of whether there’s any health risk, Rusty said he’s grown frustrated over the past five days over what he considers a lackluster response by the city to clean up the mess. Although the landfill lies within city limits, Meadowlark Properties does not.
Several employees with the city’s public works department began picking up trash in the neighborhood on Wednesday, but for Rusty the real issue is the property damage. The mud is several inches deep on portions of his driveway and backyard, suffocating the grass, and the force of the floodwaters was sufficient to knock his stairs off-kilter and damage portions of the underpinning along the bottom of the trailer.
“We work hard to keep a yard because that’s the way the trailer park wants it, and this kind of stuff happens and you just get beat against the head,” he said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
Heisler responded to that criticism by pointing to the department’s efforts to clear trash from residents’ lawns Wednesday, but said the city’s hands are tied when it comes to other damage. The complaints the city receives are forwarded to the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority, the organization that handles insurance-related claims against the city.
Heisler acknowledged residents’ frustrations, but said a timeline on getting those properties cleaned up would ultimately be up to the insurance group.
“We’re really waiting from MMIA on how they want us to proceed,” he said.
A claims adjuster from the organization met with Meadowlark residents at their homes Tuesday, he said.
Inquiries to MMIA were referred to CEO Alan Hulse, who did not return phone calls Wednesday.
In the meantime, the public works department has built a wall of concrete blocks along the portion of the ditch that failed, and Heisler said he’s confident it will prevent any further breaches.
In his 17 years with the city department, it’s the first time he’s seen this type of issue, he added.
“That ditch has been there for a long, long time,” Heisler said. “This is the first that I remember about this, and we’ve had some pretty good rainfall events before.”