Could your scenic Lowcountry view become a dump? SC loophole leads to 90-foot trash mountain near Okatie

See how Jasper County’s trash mountain has grown in four years’ time

Take a quick tour of the Materials Recovery Center construction debris recycling facility on Schinger Avenue, off of S.C. 170 in Okatie.
Up Next
Take a quick tour of the Materials Recovery Center construction debris recycling facility on Schinger Avenue, off of S.C. 170 in Okatie.

For Chandler Lloyd, a father, husband and longtime Jasper County resident, the 60-foot-tall pile of trash on his Okatie-area property off S.C. 170 — standing at about one-fifth the height of the Statue of Liberty — is the reason he says he can put food on the table.

But for neighbors, as well as local and county officials, the massive mound, made up of debris from home and business construction projects, is an eyesore, a nuisance and a serious public safety risk.

The pile of wood, cardboard, plastic and other construction debris sits on the Schinger Avenue site of Able Contracting Inc., a recycling business operated by Lloyd and classified by the state as a “recovered material processing facility.”

Outdated regulations have left the state with very little control over facilities such as Lloyd’s and no way of readily knowing whether there are other large construction debris piles in Beaufort County and elsewhere in South Carolina — besides the ones currently registered with the state.

Unlike licensed landfills, the construction-and-demolition debris sites don’t need a state permit to operate and aren’t required to register with the state. A South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman acknowledged to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette that its list of such sites statewide is “likely incomplete.”

Able Contracting is one of 17 registered C&D debris sites in South Carolina and the only registered one in Beaufort County, according to DHEC records.

“Yes, it’s a big pile; there’s no doubt about it,” Lloyd, 56, told the Packet and Gazette recently. “But instead of putting it in the landfill, we recycle this stuff, and 30 jobs are created.”

Its height has fluctuated over the approximately four years of its existence; at one point during the past year, it was about 90 feet tall, local fire officials say.

Smaller piles of recyclables near the larger mound have caught fire twice recently, including a 2015 blaze in one pile that took more than a day to extinguish, according to fire officials.

A state environmental group says it’s concerned that hazardous materials could be accepted at C&D sites throughout South Carolina, given that state law requires no regular inspections.

The handful of Schinger Avenue residents living near the large mound have voiced their concerns about what the pile holds, citing both its appearance and smell.

“(Lloyd) has reassured people it’s a legal business and he has the DHEC paperwork, but I’d like to see those people from DHEC come live out here on a windy day,” said Mary Benton, who lives down the street from the mound. “It smells like something chemical.”

In a DHEC report earlier this year, the department contended that “sham recyclers” are using a loophole in state law that allows C&D debris sites to grow bigger.

The county last year tried to get Lloyd to put a tall screen around the mound after receiving complaints, but the screen was never installed and the mound didn’t shrink.

In June this year – several weeks after the Packet and Gazette requested records from the county and state under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act – the county planning department informed Lloyd in a letter that it would not renew his business license for Able Contracting, contending, among other things, that the height of the pile violated fire codes.

The county gave Lloyd a 30-day grace period, which was later extended to Aug. 15, to continue to operate his recycling business while “providing a plan acceptable to Jasper County,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, the 60-foot-tall pile remains.

‘Just like a mudslide’

About 10 years ago, Able Contracting operated as a company that crushed rock, hauled it out and sold to concrete companies for construction projects. In 2013, Lloyd said he “reinvented” the business, converting his operations to recycling used construction materials.

“I’m not a tree hugger,” he said. “I mean I try to protect the environment, but I also saw an opportunity.”

Where there once was a barren, dirt plot of land, a small pile of debris began to accumulate.

Little by little, foot by foot, the mound grew taller.

A photo from Google Maps, left, show the site of Material Recovery Center in Ridgeland in 2013. In a staff photo taken in May 2017, right, the recycling center, run by Able Contracting Inc., shows a nearly 60-foot pile of construction debris. The center is located in Jasper County on Schinger Avenue, near Riverwalk Business Park off of S.C. 170. Staff photo illustration

In April 2015, a pile of debris near the larger mound became engulfed in fire. It took the Hardeeville Fire Department approximately 31 hours and about 1.6 million gallons of water to fully extinguish that blaze, the cause of which was undetermined.

“We noticed (the larger pile) getting bigger and bigger, but we didn’t realize just how big it was until the fire,” Hardeeville fire chief Steve Camp told the Packet and Gazette recently.

On June 11, another fire broke out in a smaller pile, though it was quickly contained, Camp said.

“If it were to catch on fire again, there’s definitely a concern,” Camp said. “But my major concern is whether or not it (the larger pile) is going to fall over— if it shifts, moves or collapses; where it collapses; and in what direction it would go toward— just like a mudslide off of a mountain.”

‘I’m not a tree hugger...I mean I try to protect the environment, but I also saw an opportunity.’

Chandler Lloyd, owner of Able Contracting LLC.

The International Fire Code requires that debris piles at “agro-industrial” and recycling facilities not exceed 25 feet in height, 150 feet in width and 250 feet in length.

Lloyd’s biggest pile currently exceeds the maximum height by more than double the limit.

“We’re making sure he’s continuing to get it down to the height we require,” said Hardeeville fire marshal Joey Rowell, though adding, “To tell you that you have to take it from 90-plus feet down to less than 30 (feet), we can’t expect it to happen overnight.”

Besides the possibility of fire, some say large debris piles pose a risk of serious or fatal injuries if they shift or fall.

From 2011 to 2015, 20 people were killed nationally while working at material recovery facilities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Able Contracting is one of 37 classified “recovered material processing facilities” in South Carolina.

“It can happen if materials are stacked too high or left for too long,” said David Biderman executive director at the Solid Waste Association of North America, an organization of more than 9,000 public and private sector professionals. “Bales of cardboard or various materials can have a very dramatic impact, and by that I mean they can be fatal.”

Norm Lamarche, general manager at Able Contracting Inc., responds to questions about a fire that started in the early morning hours on April 30, 2015. "Seems very suspicious that a fire starts in the rain," said Lamarche.

‘Sham recyclers’ in SC

The state law that regulates recycling in South Carolina – the Solid Waste Policy and Management Act – has not been considerably revised since it went into effect in 1991.

“At that time, recycling consisted of aluminum cans, colored glass, paper and several types of plastics,” said Van Keisler, director of the compliance and enforcement division for DHEC’s Bureau of Land and Waste Management. “Those markets were doing well, so when we first addressed it, we tried not to regulate the recycling industry very heavily.”

“But as time passed, the types of materials being recycled has grown in excess of what was contemplated in 1991,” he continued. “Different materials are now considered recyclables, and different markets have developed.”

“Recovered material processing facilities,” such as Able Contracting, that have voluntarily registered with the state must submit an annual report to DHEC each year. To remain exempt from obtaining a permit, the facility must show that the weight of materials recycled is at least 75 percent of the weight of materials the facility accepts.

But some of those facilities are using a loophole in the 1991 law that allows them to maintain big debris piles, DHEC contends.

“By accepting mixed material and construction and demolition debris, these sham recyclers are able to meet the recovered material processing requirement of recycling 75% by weight by processing mostly concrete while allowing other construction and demolition debris to accumulate,” DHEC said in a report presented earlier this year to the S.C. House of Representative’s Healthcare and Regulatory Subcommittee.

In 2016, crushed concrete and dirt from crushed concrete accounted for about 83% of the materials recycled by Able Contracting, according to state records. That year, the company recycled a total of about 54,800 tons of construction debris, up from approximately 28,340 tons in 2015, records show.

“Those very heavy materials allow him (Lloyd) to meet the (recycling) goals pretty easily,” Keisler said.

The materials that are not recycled each year get added to the pile on Lloyd’s property — a mound that has risen by dozens of feet each year since 2013.

‘There’s a sort of hole in what types of facilities have to follow certain rules, and these types of facilities often fall within that hole.’

Shelley Robbins, energy and state policy manager at Upstate Forever

Last year, DHEC put together a work group consisting of environmental, government and waste industry representatives to create a draft of proposed changes to the Solid Waste Policy and Management Act.

Among other things, the proposed changes would require a facility that processes construction and demolition debris to be registered with DHEC, obtain a solid-waste processing permit, and recycle at least 75% by weight of each separated material type, instead of 75% by total weight of all of the materials.

The new requirements would require companies to recycle a larger amount of their piles, instead of focusing on concrete and allowing other debris to accumulate on their property.

The Healthcare and Regulatory Subcommittee in the House adopted the proposed changes as a part of a report on DHEC that it will give to the Legislative Oversight Committee. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the changes will become a law, said Rep. Bill Bowers, D-Hampton, a member of the subcommittee and full committee.

Because the subcommittee and full committee are not policy-setting groups, Bowers said, the full oversight committee would have to adopt the changes and then a separate bill would have to be introduced in the Legislature.

Asked if he would support such a bill, Bowers replied: “I would need to know more information about how it would affect the current situation in South Carolina. I want to be certain if we put up higher barriers, they do really accomplish what we want, which is a higher recycling rate.”

Shelley Robbins, energy and state policy manager at the environmental-advocacy organization Upstate Forever, and a member of the DHEC work group, said DHEC representatives made it “pretty clear that this (proposed recycling changes) was one of the most important outcomes” of the group’s meetings.

“There’s a sort of hole in what types of facilities have to follow certain rules, and these types of facilities often fall within that hole,” she said. “It’s an ongoing hazard that continues to accumulate. It’s not an appropriate final recycling option.”

Robbins also said “it’s always a concern” that hazardous materials could wind up in the piles, especially given that the sites aren’t required to be inspected by a state agency.

In an email to the Packet and Gazette on Monday, DHEC spokesman Robert Yanity said while “recovered material processing facilities” are “not required by any regulation or law to be inspected on a regular basis,” the department has “recently implemented a plan to inspect the known facilities on an annual basis.”

But Yanity also said given that those types of facilities don’t require a permit or registration with the department, “our list is likely incomplete.”

“DHEC does not have an estimate of the number of sites which may be in SC,” he said.

Neighbor, county disputes

Lloyd said he always addresses concerns raised by officials, referring to himself as “DHEC’s poster child.”

Residents living near the 60-foot-tall mound, however, have different views.

“I think it’s a health safety issue,” said Mary Benton, who lives down the street. “The pile just keeps climbing, and some days there’s plastic blowing around in the air and into our yards.”

“I see trucks coming out, but I don’t see them bringing enough of it out,” said Rhonda Sauls, another neighbor. “Not to mention, the stench is so bad. It almost smells like methane.”

Lisa Wagner, director of the Jasper County Planning and Building Services Department, said complaints about the pile have poured into her office over the past couple of years. Then last year, she said her department discovered that Lloyd was violating the county zoning code by leasing a portable toilet business on his property.

At a February 2016 meeting, the Jasper County Planning Commission meeting agreed to allow the portable toilet business to continue operating as long as Lloyd installed a 40-foot screen around his debris pile.

At that time, a neighbor, Jay Streever, told the commission, “The last couple of months this business has exploded and there is nowhere else for the debris to go but up because the property is maxed out,” according to meeting minutes.

But the screen had not been installed four months later, after the county had extended the deadline multiple times and threatened to present Lloyd with a "cease operations" notice, according to a letter from Wagner.

To resolve the issue, the county set up a meeting in July 2016 with representatives from Able Contracting, DHEC, the county and the Hardeeville Fire Department, county records show.

“The main issue identified at the multi-agency meeting was the height and size of the debris pile,” Wagner recalled. “If the size of the debris pile were reduced, it would address many of the complaints.”

The screening requirement was put on hold then, according to Wagner, but officials didn’t take any further enforcement steps for nearly a year, in spite of the growing pile.

‘The last couple of months this business has exploded and there is nowhere else for the debris to go but up because the property is maxed out.’

Jay Streever, neighbor

On June 28, about three weeks after the Packet and Gazette submitted open-records requests to the county and DHEC related to Able Contracting and C&D debris sites statewide, the county planning department informed Lloyd by letter that it would not renew his company’s business license, noting a license can be denied “when the activity is unlawful or constitutes a public nuisance.”

The county alleged that the height of the debris pile was in violation of the International Fire Code, and also cited Lloyd for not installing a screen around the mound.

But the county also told Lloyd he could continue to operate “within a 30-day grace period while providing a plan acceptable to Jasper County to bring this site into compliance with Jasper County ordinances.” He submitted a plan a few weeks later, but it didn’t include any benchmarks, Wagner said.

In response, Wagner said she gave Lloyd some more direction and granted him an extension until Aug. 15 to submit a new plan.

Lloyd said he tries to be a good neighbor. He hires employees who may not be able to find jobs elsewhere, offers construction materials to neighbors when they need it, and every Monday cleans up debris that blows into the street, he said.

“When people think of recycling, they think of green grass glowing, but it’s actually a dirty job,” he said.

In his most recent interview on Wednesday, Lloyd said he will comply with all laws and work to lower the 60-foot pile.

But for now, it’s still there – looming.

Material Recovery Center in Jasper County is 60-feet-tall. Here are some recognizable Lowcountry landmarks and how they compare in height to the construction-and-demolition debris pile.

Maggie Angst: 843-706-8137, @maggieangst