Jasper County asks residents near trash fire to “voluntarily evacuate.” They want their lives back

RIDGELAND — Just a short drive off S.C. 170, a small community feels forgotten.

For years, 11 households on Schinger Avenue, a dust-covered road tucked away behind Riverwalk Business Park in Ridgeland, have largely fended for themselves. They’re in a rural, industrial area, out of sight. Most of the time, that’s the way they’ve wanted it.

Mud-covered four-wheelers, charcoal grills and old fishing boats are scattered in the yards of some of the mobile homes along the street. The colorful array of people who live in this close-knit community say they used to enjoy spending time outdoors.

At the end of the street, just before Schinger Avenue takes a sharp left turn, a mound of trash and debris towers over the houses. It’s been on fire since early June. The smoke is constant and unwavering. The smell is sulfuric and unmistakable. It’s toxic, and the people breathing it are in danger.

Over the past two months, residents have retreated indoors, closed windows and sought answers about the smoke that gives them headaches and makes them sick. They say they’ve been at the mercy of largely silent government agencies. It’s safe, they were told, when they were told anything at all. And now, officials are telling them they should leave.

Voluntary Evacuation

Last week, S.C. Department of Environmental Health and Control officials went door to door, telling residents about the dangers associated with the fire located at 472 Schinger Ave., the site of Chandler Lloyd’s Able Contracting, where Lloyd stores used construction materials before recycling them.

Smoke bellows from Able Contracting’s Material Recovery Center on Friday morning located on Schinger Ave. in Jasper County. On Wednesday evening, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a “Notice and Emergency Order” that stated the conditions at the recycling center “present an imminent and substantial danger to human health and the environment.” Liz Farrell lfarrell@islandpacket.com

But acknowledging the dangers of the smoking trash pile took months. Since early June, state environmental officials had told residents and business owners that the smoke from the fire was at normal levels.

On Tuesday, after examining readings from the DHEC air monitor one street away from the smoking pile, The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reported that the levels of smoke particles at the site had been as high as 565 µg/m3 — more than double the range for air quality considered “hazardous.” According the EPA, the health standard for 24-hour particle pollution exposure is 35 µg/m3. Particle pollution levels are labeled as Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy and Hazardous. Exposure to particles greater than or equal to 250.5 ug/m3 is hazardous.

The day the story was published, DHEC installed a second air monitor closer to the site.

The EPA said it monitored air at the site from July 25 to July 29 and collected air and water samples to test for harmful toxins. The agency tested for volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, oxygen and the Lower Explosive Limit — the lowest concentration of a gas capable of producing fire. The agency said the samples were sent for analysis. The results have not been released.

At 5:12 p.m. Wednesday, DHEC issued an Emergency Order for the fire at Able. The order warned that neighbors’ health and that of the environment are in “imminent and substantial danger” due to levels of particulate matter in the air that exceeded EPA health standards. Lloyd was ordered to hire an outside contractor to devise a plan to extinguish the fire within 48 hours.

On Friday, DHEC said Lloyd could not afford an outside contractor and had failed to present a plan. Under the order, DHEC now has the right to “take further enforcement action” including criminal prosecution.

“Governmental authorities are determining what next steps are appropriate,” DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby wrote in an email Friday.

Separately on Friday, Jasper County issued a Declaration of Local Emergency and began offering alternative housing plans for those living closest to the trash pile. Residents living between 352 Schinger Avenue and 472 Schinger Avenue should “voluntarily evacuate and seek alternative housing for at least the next seven days until 8 a.m. Friday Aug. 9,” the declaration said.

By Friday evening, Jasper County Fire Chief Frank Edwards said, between 16 and 20 residents had left.

An air quality machine placed by officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control was installed more than a week ago is located about 150 feet from Able Contracting’s Material Recovery Center. Timothy O’Leary and Jenny Valdez’s mobile home can be seen in the background. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

“We have nowhere to go”

Jenny Valdez and Timothy O’Leary, a young couple who have spent the past 19 months in a baby blue mobile home just steps away from the trash pile, say they need to leave, but can’t.

They say the smoke from the trash pile fire billows into their home at night. They hack and cough and have trouble sleeping. Valdez is pregnant. She’s worried about the health of her baby.

“We have nowhere to go,” Valdez said. “We are looking for another rent, but there are no cheap trailers and we do not have enough money to rent an apartment.”

For Valdez, going to a shelter isn’t an option. The stress of the move would raise her blood pressure. And that of her baby.

Less than 200-feet from the toxic smoke spewing from Able Contracting’s Material Recovery Center, Timothy O’Leary and Jenny Valdez stand for a portrait on Thursday afternoon on the porch of the mobile home they rent. On Wednesday evening, their landlord, Hampton Lloyd called 911 after Valdez complained of breathing problems. Valdez was taken to Coastal Carolina Hospital for evaluation where the attending physician wrote that the couple should leave their home for the sake of their health and that of Valdez’s unborn baby. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Valdez immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic about two years and eight months ago. O’Leary said he moved from Puerto Rico three years ago. Because neither of them speaks much English, they know only what they have witnessed themselves or what has been translated for them into Spanish.

Reporters spoke with Valdez on Thursday using a voice translator on her phone. She said the smoke in their home late Wednesday night was so unbearable that she had to go to the hospital for headaches and breathing problems. Her doctor wrote a note:

“Due to smoke in area, MD recommends you to move out of current residence to avoid harm to you and your baby.”

Other residents in the area say they just want their lives back.

Mary Benton lives with her daughters and grandchildren in a single-story brick home with yellow siding along Schinger Avenue. Daughter Carina Curiel said her family used to enjoy spending time outside — a testament to the wide array of ATVs, grills and blow-up pools scattered across her lawn. Now, she says, the smoke and smell from the fire make that outside time almost impossible.

Mary Benton says she’s unsure what to do when asked on Thursday whether her family was going to leave their home on Schinger Avenue in Ridgleland due to the toxic smoke emitted by Able Contracting’s Material Recovery Center as Japheth Douberley, 16, brings an air quality report to his grandmother. On Wednesday evening, Benson was given the air quality readings from an official with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control with dangerously high readings. Benson’s home is less than 600 feet from the recycling center. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

When reporters knocked on Curiel’s door Friday, she and her family were getting ready to leave. They were driving 80 miles west to see American Idol winner Laine Hardy perform in Twin City, Georgia.

“It’ll be nice to get away from this place for a little,” Benton said.

The polarizing businessman

Chandler Lloyd, the owner of the trash mound, said he feels awful for his neighbors and just wants to put out the fire. The tension between the recycling business and the people living and working in the area has increased over the years, escalating to animosity this summer as the pile continues to burn.

Lloyd said he’s done everything he can to stop the fire. When smoke first began billowing out of the pile in early June, Lloyd said he started pumping 5,000 gallons of water per minute from a nearby pond into the mound of debris. Hotspots from the fire deep within the pile continued popping up, spewing toxic smoke and a rancid odor over the area. Lloyd said he bought 500,000 gallons of water from Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority to replenish the pond.

Firefighters from Hardeeville and Jasper County regularly visited the site and tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail. Lloyd’s brother, Hampton Lloyd, owns the adjacent property and is the landlord to many of the neighbors in the community. The brothers have squabbled over the pile, as siblings do, but they still love and look out for each other. Hampton Lloyd said he’s concerned about his tenants who live so close to the noxious mound, but he also thinks his brother has been made to be the scapegoat by DHEC and Jasper County.

Hampton Lloyd, brother to Chandler Lloyd, owner of Able Contracting’s Material Recovery Center, tells a reporter on Thursday that he called 911 Wednesday night when Hampton Lloyd said Jasper County Fire-Rescue refused to put water on the smoldering pile of construction debris. Hampton, who owns land next to the recycling center, has tenants in mobile homes about 200 feet away from the toxic debris, one of whom is six months pregnant. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Chandler Lloyd gets emotional when talking about the employees and businesses he’s lost due to the ongoing fire. He said he doesn’t know what will happen to his business when this is over.

“I’m just trying to provide for my family,” Lloyd said.

Pollution, conspiracy, cease and desist

Lloyd faces his own legal problems. He was indicted by a Jasper County grand jury Oct. 25, 2018 on charges of violating the Pollution Control Act and The Solid Waste Policy and Management Act between 2015 and 2016. Lloyd and Hiram Lowther, a 73-year-old Ridgeland man, were also charged with two counts of conspiracy.

According to the charges, between Jan. 1, 2015 and Feb. 12, 2016, Lloyd allowed inappropriate construction and demolition debris to be discharged into the environment without proper permits, and he unlawfully operated a landfill without a permit. He and Lowther are accused of conspiring to violate both laws.

For each conspiracy charge, Lloyd and Lowther face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000, according to S.C. law.

In the first court hearing, on Tuesday, Lloyd and Lowther were released on $20,000 bond. On Friday, Lloyd agreed to answer questions from The Island Packet but refused to discuss the indictments.

About 10 years ago, Able Contracting 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.

Despite Lloyd’s contention that he operates a recycling facility, DHEC said he violated the S.C. Solid Waste Act. The violation, issued Sept. 17, 2018, said the company failed to meet the 75 percent recycling rate required for Construction and Demolition Facilities for fiscal year 2016. DHEC closed the case on Oct. 17, 2018 with a warning letter. Lloyd was then indicted. According to DHEC, Lloyd’s application to be a Construction and Demolition facility is pending.

On July 3, 2019, DHEC ordered Able Contracting to stop accepting new materials at the facility. Lloyd, along with his lawyer, Tommy Lavender, a former environmental engineer with DHEC, appealed the order on July 8. While the S.C. Board of Health and Environmental Control reviewed Lloyd’s appeal, he continued accepting new debris at his facility. On Tuesday, the board denied the appeal.

DHEC says it is now monitoring the site 24 hours a day and if Lloyd accepts any new material, he is violating the Emergency Order and could be arrested.

When the smoke clears

As the towering pile at the end of this quiet, rural road continues to smolder and agencies scramble to assess the damage, the residents who inhale the mound’s toxic fumes every night are left wondering why it took so long for the government to notice.

The people of Schinger Avenue have complained about the fiery pile’s smoke and smell to DHEC since June 3. Two months later, the mound’s future and the health of area residents are still uncertain.

Mike Duncan lives across the street from Mary Benton and her family. His backyard — covered with colorful homemade art and decorations — reminds him daily that he used to spend his time outside. Before the construction debris arrived at the end of his street, he had no problems with where he lived. But, for years, he’s watched the mound grow as pickup trucks drive by and dump their construction materials at Lloyd’s property.

Now, as smoke billows down Schinger Avenue at night and seeps into his home, he’s fed up. Take the pile away, he says, and give him back his life.