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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Zoe Poplin cupped her hands around her 17-month-old’s head, as if her palms over his ears could protect him. “I’m worried about him,” she said. She stroked baby Ezra’s back. “Because when they’re little, you know, their little cells are splitting real fast, and he’s growing and all it takes is one misreading, and he could end up with childhood cancer. Because they were saying volatile organic compounds, and — what was it?”

“Benzene,” murmured her husband, Tim.


“Benzene, yeah,” she said. “Those are all carcinogens, and I try not to let it get to me, but—.” She turned away, started to cry. She was 29. On the coffee table in front of her sat the remains of Ezra’s post-day care snack. He was on her lap, chubby in his dinosaur-pattern onesie, oblivious to everything but the cartoon puppies bouncing around on TV.

She’d first smelled something in 2020, around 2 a.m., as she got home from a late shift at the hospital. It was mild at first. Then it got stronger, thicker, pouring into people’s homes. The pastor at a nearby Presbyterian church wondered if an animal had died in the ductwork. Some speculated the fumes were industrial. Others reported gas leaks — but again and again, the fire department would come out and set them straight. Oh, no, they’d say. That’s just the landfill.

Bristolians took to calling it The Beast. “There’s different notes,” said Becky Evenden, co-leader of a nonprofit formed to solve the issue. “There’s that sweet burning plastic smell. There’s that pure garbage smell. There’s that alcohol and acetone smell. There’s that ‘somebody lit a match on fire’ sulphur dioxide smell. Then there’s the dead bodies smell. Ugh, it’s so bad. The dead bodies smell is probably the least acute-symptom-triggering — except that it’s so nauseating.”

All those fumes originated less than two miles from the Poplins’ house. They’d met working at Sam’s Club. He was a meat-cutter; she was in electronics and mobile, putting herself through lab-tech school. By 2017, they were buying a home with room for a kid and a backyard for the dogs. After Ezra was born, Tim drove home at a crawl, afraid to go over 30 miles an hour with this tiny, fragile being in the car. Zoe insisted on breastfeeding; even when Ezra started sleeping through the night, she woke every four hours to pump. They wouldn’t use plug-in air fresheners, fearing chemical exposures. They wouldn’t see unvaccinated family members, fearing Covid and whooping cough.


The landfill gas, though, was beyond their control. “You try to do everything you can to protect your family and make sure that they’re healthy,” Zoe said. “And then the city you live in — it was basically undermining me as a parent.”

This fall and winter, Bristol landed in the national news — but not because of the landfill fumes driving people out of their homes. Instead, the coverage zeroed in on the town’s anti-abortion ordinance, made possible by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. At a recent city council meeting, throngs of activists filled the room, wearing yellow stickers that read “Safe Zone for Life,” with the image of a fetus nestled into the “O” of “zone.” Some had driven in from other towns. One called a local OB-GYN a serial killer. Others likened the activities of a nearby clinic to the Holocaust.

“It’s amazing, how those pro-birth people can get all that attention,” said Joel Kellogg, a grocery store worker and co-leader of the anti-landfill group. For residents affected by the fumes, it was telling how the abortion debate seemed to override everything else. To them, Bristol hadn’t been a safe zone in years.


A view of downtown Bristol. Mike Belleme for STAT

When the gases were thickening in 2021, regulating abortion wasn’t on the agenda of the Bristol, Va., city council. Besides the landfill, the town was worried about the municipal coffers and the state of their local schools. There was an OB-GYN named Wes Adams who was known to provide abortions, but his office was on West State Street, on the Tennessee side.

That’s how life is in Bristol. It’s two cities in one. You can hardly go a day without stepping from one municipality into another, crisscrossing the state line. You might do your groceries in Virginia, for the lower sales tax, then head to the Bible study you like at a church in Tennessee. It has other claims to fame. It’s designated the “Birthplace of Country Music,” where in 1927, in an old hat warehouse, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers first recorded ballads and yodels that would become canonical. It’s home to a 153,000-seat NASCAR racetrack. But in 2022, it was Bristol’s status as a border town — and Adams’ work there — that brought it into the spotlight.

Adams had come to town in 1978, soon after finishing up his training in Georgia. He and his medical partner weren’t just terminating pregnancies. They were delivering babies, doing hysterectomies, treating symptoms of menopause with hormone therapy — the entire gamut of obstetric and gynecological care, with abortion only a small fraction of it. “We provided everything,” he said. “That’s the way we were taught.”

Then, in May 2022, the draft of the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe was leaked. Tennessee lawmakers were already hostile to abortion. If Roe fell, he knew some of his work would become illegal at the state level. So he put in a call to his old friend Diane Derzis, the “queen of abortion,” as she’s often referred to in the news. She’d earned the moniker running clinics across the South, in spite of threats and bombings and byzantine laws. She owned the clinic in Jackson, Miss., at the center of the case that ended up overturning Roe. “How do you feel about opening a clinic in Bristol, Virginia?” she recalled him asking.

It made sense. The procedure was legal in Virginia, and Democrats controlled the state Senate. Within a few months, Adams closed his old office in Tennessee, and a new clinic popped up, less than 2 miles away.

That attracted the attention not only of the Bristol, Va., city council, but also of conservative lobbyists a five-hour drive away, in Richmond, the state capital. That’s where Josh Hetzler, the attorney who helped craft the ordinance, is based. He works for the Family Foundation of Virginia, fighting Covid-19 vaccine mandates and policies that would protect transgender people from discrimination.

He wasn’t the only anti-abortion advocate looking at local government. In overturning Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court justices had kicked the regulation of abortion to the state level. But some municipalities have passed their own restrictions, almost as a taunt, actively inviting lawsuits. As one of the architects of this movement told a journalist for Stateline, “I would love to see the Supreme Court rule in our favor and potentially see abortion de facto outlawed in every single state in America.”

Hetzler was aware of the anti-abortion resolutions enacted in some cities and counties, but to him, they didn’t go far enough. “While we support it, we were more interested in doing something that has some force of law,” he said.

In Bristol, he saw two possible avenues. A general ordinance against abortion would shut down the clinic Adams and Derzis had just opened, and block any new ones. A zoning ordinance would forestall the arrival of more abortion clinics, but would allow existing businesses to keep working, as long as they didn’t renovate. “A general ordinance would be a much heavier lift, because it would have said to the existing abortion facility, ‘You have to close down.’ That would have given clear standing for them to sue” — and there seemed to be limited appetite for that on Bristol’s city council, Hetzler explained. “It just wasn’t clear we had the votes for that.”

Even with the ordinance he crafted, there were potential issues with a city trying to restrict something that’s legal at the state level. He had a specific precedent in mind, in which a municipality had used zoning to block a business from setting up shop. It was about a landfill.

Joel Kellogg (left) and Becky Evenden, seen in downtown Bristol, are co-leaders of the nonprofit HOPE for Bristol, founded to advocate for the landfill emission issues to be solved. Mike Belleme for STAT

Or, more precisely, it was about a landfill that never came to be. In the 1980s, a private company proposed a dump for construction debris in Prince William County, Va., about 45 minutes from Washington, D.C. Locals protested. They worried about chemicals leaching into the drinking water and about landfill fires so deep within the mountains of garbage they’d be hellish to put out.

Technically, the land was zoned for agriculture, but a landfill would’ve been allowed — until the county board of supervisors amended the zoning to put a kibosh on the whole thing. The dump-proposers sued, and lost. They appealed, and lost again. That, Hetzler argued, was a clear case of zoning being changed to stop a particular kind of land use even though it remained legal at the state level.

A 1999 clipping from the Bristol Herald-Courier about the “city landfill’s fire problem.” Courtesy Bristol, VA Library

He needed a strong argument. Municipalities occupy a precarious niche in the ecosystem of American government. Their powers aren’t spelled out in the Constitution. They’re given huge responsibilities over people’s well-being — tap water, firefighting, the police force — but they remain creatures of the state, their decisions easily reversed by the alpha legislators in the state capitol. That’s especially true in a place like Virginia, which upholds Dillon’s rule, the idea that a town can only do what the state has given it express permission to do. But it can be true for the rest of the country as well. To be a local official is to run the risk of being overruled.

Often, that means a conservative state government smacking down a city’s progressive projects — Texas blocking local bans on fracking, Arizona yanking away a town’s ability to outlaw plastic bags. But there’s also been a concerted strategy, promoted by operatives like Steve Bannon, to fill local positions with far-right officials, who’ve sometimes attracted legal scrutiny for dismantling the very machinery of city hall or firing the town’s health officer. What comes across clearest is the din itself, a crescendo of partisanship in a realm that might’ve yielded common ground.

The anti-abortion ordinance generated a lot of noise in Bristol. With the impassioned soliloquies came unresolved legal questions. Was a municipality allowed to restrict abortion, which the state of Virginia explicitly allows up to 26 weeks and 6 days? Would a court accept the argument that this fell under the city’s power to make rules for the preservation of morals? Was it discriminatory to ban clinics that offer women’s health care?

“The fact that they have the power to zone does not mean they have the power to do anything they want and call it zoning,” said Gerald Frug, an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School.

When asked if he was worried about Dillon’s rule, Kevin Wingard, a former city councilor who’d worked on the ordinance said, “Dillon can go back wherever he came from.”

There was another issue. Whether the ordinance would stand depended in part on the analogy between an abortion clinic and a landfill. There were some obvious differences. A landfill is right out of the zoning textbook. It can affect not only the people who have business there, but the experience of the public writ large. It can emit explosive gases and nauseating smells, attract vermin, pollute the groundwater. “A landfill is a sort of classic use that has incompatibilities with other land uses,” said Richard Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “It impacts things like property values and neighborhood livability.”

Those aren’t typically concerns with a clinic. It might play a quiet, vital role in public health, but it doesn’t change the block it’s on any more than any other medical practice. Take Bristol Women’s Health. It’s a squat brick building next door to a bank. The traffic is comparable to that of a dentist’s office. If it weren’t for the protesters outside — one of them wearing pink, which patients might mistake for the uniform of a clinic volunteer — you might not know it was there at all.

Bristol Women’s Health, with the pink banner put up in response to the proposal of a local anti-abortion zoning ordinance. Mike Belleme for STAT
A town hall meeting is held in downtown Bristol in March, quieter than it sometimes is. Mike Belleme for STAT

You couldn’t help but know The Beast was there. It permeated the neighborhood and seeped into the house. The Poplins tried stuffing the cracks around the door with towels and foam. Zoe felt like a fish out of water, gills pulsing. She didn’t want to breathe, would avoid it as long as possible, but she couldn’t keep that up, she’d have to inhale eventually, have to let this stuff into her lungs. She felt nauseous. She didn’t want to eat. Tim got daily headaches. In the winter of 2021, they lay in their bedroom, Zoe wearing her N95 from work at the hospital, Tim wearing the respirator he used to spray insecticide for his job in pest control. They looked down at Ezra in his bassinet, his tiny nose and mouth exposed.

Plus, he was inconsolable. Zoe couldn’t be sure it was The Beast. “They don’t come with manuals,” she said. But then they drove to South Carolina for Tim’s grandfather’s funeral, and suddenly Ezra was fine — relaxed, bubbly, even when the guns went off for the military salute. It made sense. They felt sick with The Beast around; their baby was probably experiencing the same thing.

An earlier generation of Bristolians had seen this coming, when the landfill was just a proposal. Like the residents of Prince William County, they’d protested. They signed a petition, showed up at city council. “I was there, and objecting to it, along with the other citizens in that area,” said Jackie Nophlin, a local pastor. “But keep in mind, that was a low-income area.”

Virginia officials agreed with the residents. In 1985, a state geologist wrote a letter about “the real danger of serious ground water pollution.” But Bristol’s city council insisted. This was happening amid a grand reshuffling of American trash, municipal landfills closing in cities like New York, the refuse they would’ve held instead hauled by rail and road to Pennsylvania and Virginia. It was framed as a win-win: An urban center solved its garbage problem, a poor community got an influx of cash with every stinking load.

Eventually, state regulators gave in. The dump began accepting waste in 1998. It didn’t take long for the landfill to catch fire. In its first two years of operation, according to the Bristol Herald-Courier, there was a series of blazes, some shooting up blue flames, others billowing black smoke. The city fixed the immediate issues, then kept on hauling in garbage bales.

-- coverage from STAT
A view of the landfill. Courtesy City of Bristol, Virginia

We think of a landfill as nothing more than a mountain of trash, a final resting place where plastic bags, old shoes, soiled diapers, and plaque-encrusted loops of floss sit untouched. Instead, it’s more like a giant, explosive chemistry experiment: It’s supposed to be sealed, inputs and outputs carefully controlled. Bacteria should be in there, doing the dark microscopic work of breaking garbage down. Trash juices should be pumped out and treated. Emissions should be siphoned off and burned in flares. Layers of refuse should be regularly covered over with a bed of soil.

But that kind of control can be hard to maintain in the real world, especially for a landfill like Bristol’s, which occupies the pit of an old quarry. The walls aren’t perfectly vertical, and they’re limestone — a soft sort of rock, easily carved by rainwater. The surrounding landscape is honeycombed with caverns and underground creeks. At the landfill, the sides are fractured, zigzagged with cracks. Engineers hung a chain-link fence against the walls and rolled down a liner to create a seal, but it could easily tear or rumple under the weight of the trash. And anyone who’s gone swimming in an old quarry knows how water collects at the bottom. That’s a lot of liquid to pump.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly caused the Bristol landfill’s issues to become a crisis in the last few years. Moisture can spur heat-generating reactions. So can too much oxygen. So can other molecules that might wind up in trash. Already, the innards of a landfill run hot, with the bacterial warmth of decomposition, insulated by blankets of garbage — a moist, chemically complex tinderbox.

In 2021, some of the experts called in thought there may have been spontaneous combustion. Others said it looked like an “elevated temperature landfill.” That wasn’t wrong. The temperature was indeed elevated: In some places, it was too hot for some of the sensors that were supposed to measure it. Landfill experts start getting worried when they see readings of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. In Bristol, in January of this year, certain spots were above 300.

That inferno meant trouble. “When you boil one unit of liquid water, and turn it to gas, it expands 1,700 times,” said Todd Thalhamer, one of the engineers called in to help. “That gas has to come out.” But he’d seen signs that the system of emission-siphoning pipes was inadequate. Plus, there wasn’t enough soil cover. Add in a possible tear in the sidewall liner, and you get many paths through which that gas may have reached Zoe Poplin’s nose late in 2020.

Some think the answer is to crank up the vacuum, so the pipes slurp gas at a higher rate. But if the seal isn’t good, and the root of a problem is a fire, that’ll just pull in more oxygen, worsening the smolder. Drill into the trash to bolster the network for drawing out emissions — and you may well send a beast out into the surrounding neighborhoods. That drilling issue may be what happened in 2021, when the Poplins were wearing respirators in their bedroom.

Throughout all this, Bristol, Va., was still hauling in more trash. It didn’t stop until Bristol, Tenn., filed a lawsuit. The landfill wasn’t just violating environmental law, the complaint said, but also preventing teachers and first responders from working, “because the odors cause headaches, nosebleeds, and vomiting.” The case was filed in May 2022; the landfill stopped accepting garbage that September.

About a month later, Bristol’s city council pushed forward its anti-abortion zoning ordinance. The member who worked on it called it “the most important issue” to ever come before the town government. Families affected by the landfill weren’t so sure. Some were against abortion; some supported a woman’s right to make her own reproductive decisions. Others didn’t want to share their opinions about abortion itself. But many couldn’t help noticing the disproportionate attention paid to the issue, how it seemed to suck all the air out of the room.

“People care more about the unborn than they do about people who are here and suffering, whether that be the mother or the child — or, you know, an entire city who can’t breathe.”

Zoe Poplin

“People care more about the unborn than they do about people who are here and suffering, whether that be the mother or the child — or, you know, an entire city who can’t breathe,” said Zoe Poplin.

“This landfill’s the number one thing. It’s bad,” said resident Chris Knupp at a recent city council meeting. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, toward the rows of anti-abortion activists. “These folks back here, pro-life and all. It’s all good,” he said. “Now, if y’all are really worried about all these little children, unborn and born — in our school systems, the kids are suffering, too. So y’all might want to look around and get involved in it a little bit. That’s our future, these kids. And this landfill’s hurting them. It’s hurting everybody, everybody here in this room, that lives in this city, on both sides.”

This January, Bristol got sued again, this time by the state of Virginia, for failing to fix the landfill issues. To be fair, the solutions could take time. The city was testing out a method for sealing the sidewall liner; that’s not something that could happen overnight.

Residents, though, accused officials of dragging their feet. After three years of activism, they’re tired. They just want The Beast to go away. For some, it’s been even longer than that. Jackie Nophlin is showing up at city council meetings in 2023 to protest about the same issue she’d been raising hell about in 1995. “The reason you may not hear or see a large number of Bristol Virginians protesting is because they feel that they did so for so many years, and nothing was done,” she said.

But there’s a political dimension, too. “This is a red part of the state, southwest Virginia. They don’t want to admit that this is an environmental injustice issue,” she said. “They’ll say the ‘issue,’ but they won’t say the ‘injustice’ part. Because they think that’s Democrat-talk. But the fact of the matter is, this is an environmental injustice to them, whether you call it by name or not. It’s the same for us all.”

The Kingtown neighborhood in Bristol, Va., which is close to the landfill. Mike Belleme for STAT

If you’re passing through Bristol, and ask the anti-landfill activists to let you know when the Beast is out, chances are your texts will blow up around somewhere between 9 p.m. and midnight.

“It’s coming I smell the burnt plastic so it’s lurking. Try Booher Rd.”

“It’s at my house but it’s a 3/10 rating. I want it ripe.”

“If your here still my god you have to drive by. It’s so bad right now.”

They were animated by conflicting desires: On the one hand, they wouldn’t wish these gases on anybody. On the other, they want people to know this problem is real. Call The Beast an “odor,” as officials often have, and residents feel miffed: It stinks, but their concerns run deeper than that. They’re worried about how the chemicals in the emissions might be affecting their children. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Hydrogen sulfide has been linked to respiratory irritation, dizziness, and convulsions. Zoe Poplin was hardly the only parent who felt unable to protect her infant. One mom would rush her coughing baby over to her in-laws’ with a blanket over the car seat, scared that the fumes would give her kid the kind of cancer that killed her father. Another moved her family outside of town, her rent jumping from $800 to $2,015, to stop asthma attacks from landing her daughter from landing in the ER.

“It was making my wife vomit profusely. She was unable to keep down liquids a lot of the time. And with the dehydration from throwing up, she ended up having early labor contractions,” said another parent, whose baby was born unable to breathe and had to spend a month in the NICU.

That these issues are directly caused by The Beast can be hard to prove. Asthma and uncontrollable vomiting late in pregnancy happen in other places, too. In a community symptom survey, the majority of the 653 respondents reported burning eyes, noses, and throats, headaches, nausea, and breathing trouble — but a toxicologist hired by Bristol, Tenn., said that while the gas levels were unusually high, the concentrations were too small to be toxic.

Residents weren’t convinced. No matter what official reports said, the disruption to their lives was undeniable. One couple left their home and moved into a camper. Some families left the region entirely.

The Poplins thought about moving, too. They had a friend in Colorado, another in North Carolina. Maybe it wasn’t so important to be near family after all. Or they could move to Kingsport, 20 miles away, its skyline and economy dominated by Eastman Chemical Company. “This is more dangerous, in my perspective, than living next to a chemical plant the size of a city,” she said. To her, at least that was more controlled. Ultimately, the economics deterred her. They’d just bought a house. “I can’t financially ruin my family just to get away from this. Like, is the city going to pay for this?”

“That’s what people say: ‘Well, just move,” said Joel Kellogg. “Well, you know what? If I don’t know if I’ve got enough gas to make it till payday, probably not going to be moving anytime soon. And then who is going to buy your home, if the realtors do their due diligence, and say, ‘Oh you know, we’ve got this landfill, and the gas is going to fill your home, is that OK? Sign this waiver.’”

Just as Bristolians will describe The Beast in obsessive detail — how it changes with the temperature and wind, how it settles in low-lying neighborhoods between ridges — so, too, will they swap tips and tricks and temporary fixes, ways of trying to make their homes at least a little more livable. One evening in January, during a break in a meeting for affected residents, James and Irene Nunn sat in a community center cafeteria, describing the effect of their four air purifiers.

“Doesn’t eliminate it,” said Irene.

“But that — and packing your nose with Vicks VapoRub — it helps,” said James.

They were 75 and 78, lifelong Bristolians. James wore a cap with the insignia of his infantry division, with which he’d served in the 1960s. He’d asked Irene out soon after he got home. They already knew each other. Her grandfather — jack-of-all-trades, house-builder, hog-slaughterer — had been best friends with James’ dad; the pair had occasionally done business together, trading horses. James and Irene had raised two sons in the city, he working maintenance at a vacuum cleaner factory, she as a packager and inspector for a pharmaceutical company. They loved Bristol, the small-town-ness of it.

The Beast had gotten a bit better lately, but they’d probably still be evacuating their house if James’ back pain hadn’t been flaring up in the car. They’d done it so often it had become a routine, a ritual. They’d wake up in the wee hours, feeling like they were choking. They’d get dressed, take their dog, Bandit, and then drive all night. They’d usually head up toward the Holston Dam, where the air felt cleaner.

“We’d ride out to the lake and just sit out there, in the parking lot,” said Irene. They wouldn’t stay in one place too long, lest the authorities notice and run them off.

A woman in her 60s happened to overhear, and jumped in: “I’ve spent the night out there. Past the green bridge, in the gravel parking lot.”

“You have too, have you?” Irene asked.

“I have,” said the woman. “I mean, I didn’t have nowhere else to go.”

“We didn’t, neither,” Irene said.

A view from the dam where the Holston River meets the reservoir known as Holston Lake, just outside of Bristol. Mike Belleme for STAT

Slowly, Bristol has crept into the regional and then the national news. It’s become vaguely familiar, a single-issue town. It doesn’t quite have the name recognition of an East Palestine or Uvalde, but almost. It was mentioned in Politico. A health reporter visited from Atlanta. It’s been written about and filmed by a team of journalists from the Associated Press, their story picked up by PBS and ABC. You could open a glossy magazine in a supermarket within a mile of the White House and find an eight-page spread about Bristol.

All of these pieces were about abortion. It was worth paying attention to, and it was attracting widespread interest. A local Catholic priest complained that this was becoming the city’s claim to fame. He’d gotten interview requests from as far away as Sweden.

In late January, the anti-landfill activists held a press conference and community meeting in an auditorium on the Tennessee side. They invited about 25 news outlets from as far away as Knoxville, Roanoke, Richmond, and Washington, D.C. None came but the handful that were local to Bristol. One reporter had to leave mid-conference; two men had escaped from a prison in Abingdon, Va., and they were thought to be on the loose in a stolen Cadillac.

Local and regional outlets have delved into the delays in fixing the landfill. One journalist — Sarah Wade, reporting for Southerly Magazine — went so far as to distribute pamphlets to get accurate information to low-income households that might not have reliable internet or access to social media. Back in 2018, in a Washington Post piece about Bristol, Va.’s financial woes, there had been a few paragraphs about the landfill as a source of debt, to the tune of $30 million, but that was before The Beast was out and about in so much of the city. Now, years into the crisis, many affected Bristolians feel overlooked, forgotten about.

There’s a parallel between the kind of coverage these two issues have gotten so far and the different registers in which each is playing out. The landfill remediation has been slow, technical, jargon-filled. It involves continuing attempts to fix the sidewall liner, to install more pipes and pumps, to put a geomembrane over the top to bolster the soil cover — all ways of trying to establish a better seal. Last week, the Virginia and Tennessee sides of town came to an agreement, which involved air monitoring until the landfill is covered, ending the sister-city lawsuit.

The fight over the anti-abortion zoning proposal has been showier. On the facade of Bristol Women’s Health, just below the “No Trespassing” sign, is a pink banner: “Honored to be Bristol’s one and only officially designated abortion clinic,” it proclaims, in all-caps. It was a joke, Diane Derzis’ way of thumbing her nose at the city council’s ordinance, of saying that that wouldn’t actually change the care that was available in town for the moment. “It’s perfect for me, because there can’t be any other clinics there. For someone in business, you couldn’t ask for the passage of a better zoning law.” Derzis laughed a cigarette-y laugh. “Someone made me queen for the day.”

Then, she got serious. “You have to be able to laugh at some of this nonsense, because it’s so sad, what’s really going on, when women are having ectopic pregnancies, and no one can decide when it’s close enough that she’s going to die, so they just let her lay there until —” she trailed off. “We choose to laugh when we can. Because, otherwise you cry.”

During the winter, nothing seemed to be happening with the anti-abortion ordinance. City council members voted for it unanimously in November. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia wrote a stern letter, questioning the bill’s legality. The city council went ahead and sent their proposal to the planning commission for consideration. But the planning commission didn’t put it on the agenda, leaving the ordinance in limbo. Hetzler, of the Virginia Family Foundation, acknowledged that officials might be pushing it off because, after the landfill litigation, they were wary of yet another lawsuit.

Either way, he’s had his eye on a legal tool that could get the legislation unstuck. The city code allows the council to advance a zoning ordinance if the commission doesn’t act for 60 days. “It has been over 60 days now,” he said in January. “And so, you know, we’ll see what happens, but if the planning commission isn’t going to take it up — I guess we can’t force them to — the city council can move forward.”

In late March, he texted, “Lots going on behind the scenes. The effort is still very much alive but trying to work out which strategy can get 3 out of 5 votes — at least.”

Such machinations can be mesmerizing — the incremental partisan scuffle that keeps us reaching for our phones, like a football match with real-world stakes. We can’t help watching the backroom deals and the strategic plays, the theatrics of it all. The questions about medicine and bodily autonomy can get obscured by the tactics involved, the line of scrimmage moving up and down the field. Every maneuver is memorable, endlessly analyzable.

Our garbage is a problem we all like to forget about. We throw something out, drag our cans to the curb, our bags to the dump, and assume our municipality will take care of it. Isn’t that what local government is supposed to do? Ensure our collective well-being, make our towns and counties livable? But in forgetting about our garbage, we forget about the ever-widening circle of people who live with it. It starts with the most vulnerable and then moves outward. That, too, is a question of bodily autonomy: Neighborhoods and houses unwillingly transformed by our industry and our waste, byproducts affecting pregnancy and infancy and childhood and parenthood and old age. As with any environmental issue, the longer we forget about it, the more it affects us all. Concerns are minimized, brushed off until there are lawsuits, until damage is translated into the language of money, until forgetting is no longer possible.

A lawsuit is a blunt instrument. It can compensate you for harms you’ve already experienced. It can prevent future damage. It can help set the record straight. But it can’t go back and fix the past. “When he gets older and stuff, is he going to have issues because of this?” asked Zoe Poplin. She rubbed Ezra’s foot. “Just because there’s a huge lawsuit and they actually figure out, ‘Oh, did this cause harm?’ — I don’t care about that. I just don’t want anything bad to happen. You know, I don’t want money. I don’t want to be right. I don’t want anything like that. I just want him to be OK.”

It was evening now, the shutters closed. Ezra rubbed his eye with the back of his hand, flopped his head to the side, and cooed. Soon, it would be dinnertime, and then bedtime. Outside, the night was cold and clear, the street quiet. All you could hear were the muffled sounds of someone doing the dishes, the snuffling of a dog in a backyard, the whisper of cars a few blocks away. Even with porch lights and streetlamps on, it was dark enough to see the stars — not just one or two, but an endless array, the kind of night that makes you want to pause, look up, breathe. But it was still early, and Bristolians could feel it: The wind had died down, and within a few hours, the Beast would be out.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of reproductive health care supported by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund

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