What’s that smell? Business owners and residents concerned about foul odor and air quality near Okatie

In Ridgeland, off S.C. 170, a “trash mountain” stands about 45 feet tall — just below the pine tree line.

For people driving down Schinger Avenue, the smell hits before the mound of debris is even visible. Depending on how the wind is blowing, area residents and business owners can smell it from miles away. It’s sulfuric. It’s “sickening,” neighbors say. It’s “nasty.”

The mound, packed with wood, cardboard, plastic and other miscellaneous debris — including toilet seats and old tires — is the site of Chandler Lloyd’s Able Contracting Inc., a construction and demolition debris recycling facility. Neighbors — industrial businesses and mobile home owners — have complained about the site’s appearance, rancid smell and potential safety hazards for years.

As previously reported by The Island Packet, neighbors as well as fire officials and state environmental regulators worried about the size of the pile, fires and the possibility of hazardous materials on the property. In April 2015, a pile of debris near the mound caught fire. It took the Hardeeville Fire Department about 31 hours and 1.6 million gallons of water to fully extinguish that blaze; the cause was undetermined.

“If it were to catch on fire again, there’s definitely a concern,” Hardeeville Fire Chief Steve Camp said in 2017.

In early June, smoke began billowing out of the pile again and spreading a strong smell, similar to sulfur.

“We can’t breathe here,” said Mary Benton, a resident who lives on Schinger avenue down the street from Able Contracting.

The Hardeeville Fire Department was called to extinguish the fire. A month later, on July 3, a letter from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control noted that the fire was “lingering.” Hardeeville Fire Assistant Chief Joey Rowell said his department has been called to the mound 13 times since 2015, responding to fires, smoke and other issues. He said it’s hard to conclude what causes the fires due to the varying types of debris. On July 1, the mound’s jurisdiction changed to Jasper County Fire and Rescue and, since then, the department has sent workers to check to the site daily, said Lisa Wagner, Jasper County’s director of planning and building.

In response to numerous calls and complaints about the intermittent smoke from the pile, DHEC is investigating potential health hazards related to the site. The agency is testing air and water samples. The department has installed an air monitor at Palmetto Exterminators, a business down the road, to test for air quality, said Tommy Crosby, director of media relations for DHEC. The air monitor provides data every 15 minutes.

“While we have seen levels above background levels, there have not been any readings that exceed the health-based standards established by the EPA,” Crosby said.

Due to the investigation and the lingering fire, DHEC wrote Able Contracting on July 3, prohibiting the company from accepting new materials. Van Keisler, director of the compliance and enforcement division for DHEC’s Bureau of Land and Waste Management, wrote that before the company could resume accepting any materials, DHEC would have to verify that the fire was completely extinguished — inside the pile and out.

In a response July 12, W. Thomas Lavender Jr., the company’s lawyer, said its owner, Chandler Lloyd, disputes DHEC’s “characterization of a lingering fire at the Facility.” The fire in early June, Lavender wrote, was due to a lightning strike on the pile, and “there is not currently and has never been an active fire at the Facility as a result of this lightning strike.” Lavender also wrote that the company appealed DHEC’s July 3 prohibition.

As of Thursday, Able Contracting continued to accept new material to the site, said Angela Lloyd, Able Contracting’s manager.

Nearby business owners and residents dispute the contention that there is no active fire at the mound. Wagner said she’s received calls daily from people complaining about the site — so often that she created a separate call log for the issue.

Mike Trezza, branch manager at nearby Palmetto Exterminators, said at least one of his employees wears a respirator mask to curb the odor. Jared Stromer, owner of Stromer Plumbing, said one of his employees works from home to avoid the stench. Stromer said he saw the pile glowing. He and Trezza say smoke has billowed from the mound some evenings and early mornings.

Angela Lloyd, Able Contracting’s manager, said workers are continually running 500,000 gallons of water through the mound of debris to keep it cool and prevent the fire from reigniting. Staff also created a trough system around the pile to keep the water flowing.

Local business owners, including Trezza and Stromer, worry that the water may have escaped from the trough system and is flowing into the Okatie River.

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A reporter for The Island Packet covering local government and development, Kacen Bayless is a native of St. Louis, Missouri. In the past, he’s worked for St. Louis Magazine, the Columbia Missourian, KBIA and the Columbia Business Times. He graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism degree with an emphasis in Investigative Reporting from the University of Missouri in 2019.