State plans to extinguish hazardous trash pile fire but worries about Okatie Elementary

The “No. 1” pressing problem for the state’s environmental agency right now: extinguishing the months-old trash pile fire near Ridgeland, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control director told the board Thursday.

The fire at Able Contracting Inc. in Jasper County started smoldering in early June, and last week, as many as 25 neighbors evacuated to escape the toxic fumes. DHEC officials have been monitoring air quality near the site for more than a month, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has collected air and water samples to test for toxins.

On Thursday, DHEC Director Rick Toomey briefed the agency’s governing board for the first time publicly, walking the seven members through the events of the fire at the pile, starting with the first reports June 3, the hazardous levels of smoke particles discovered last week, the voluntary evacuation of the neighborhood Friday. And now, the concern about the proximity of the fire to Okatie Elementary School, less than a mile away.

Several board members asked where the mound of construction debris was located, what started the fire and what the towering pile of debris looked like.

A DHEC staff worker pulled out her phone and showed a photo of the towering mound at 472 Schinger Ave., Ridgeland.

“What a mess,” one board member said.

Classes start Aug. 19

DHEC has “reached out to the school system in Jasper County,” Toomey said, “because we’re concerned about the air quality eight-tenths of a mile away.” Okatie Elementary School starts class on Aug. 19, and Toomey said DHEC plans to install an air quality monitor at the school to determine if the air is safe for students.

The Red Cross, he said, is “on standby” regarding the residents who live near the mound, but he praised Jasper County for providing temporary housing until Aug. 15 for those who evacuated.

As reported Wednesday by The Island Packet, Toomey said DHEC has hired an outside company to extinguish the fire. The contractor was selected from a list of state-approved companies, Toomey said.

The decision to hire an outside company to stop the fire comes as the long-awaited air and water quality readings by the EPA still haven’t been released. Toomey told the board that the EPA’s first readings for hazardous materials at the site were inconclusive and needed to be tested again.

“We made the decision [Wednesday] morning, we can’t wait for the EPA. The EPA was supposed to give us information Tuesday night and [Wednesday] afternoon on the two samples that they were testing,” Toomey told the board. “We have instructed the contractor to start mobilizing on Friday.”

Determining who is responsible for extinguishing the fire and for the costs of the cleanup rests on what EPA finds from its air and water quality samples. If the EPA finds dangerous and hazardous materials on the site, such as asbestos, the site becomes a federal issue, and the EPA will be involved, Toomey said. If the agency determines there are no hazardous materials at the site apart from the dangerous particulate matter emitted by the fire, then DHEC and the state will have to extinguish the fire.

Friday morning, the contractor will meet with DHEC workers and Jasper County officials to create a plan to extinguish the fire. That involves creating a road management plan to bring several types of trucks and equipment to the site just off S.C. 170. It may result in road closures, Toomey said.

DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said DHEC will consider fines against the owner of Able Contracting, Chandler Lloyd, but the agency’s first concern is quelling the fire.

The most hazardous issue facing Jasper County, Toomey said, is the fire at the trash mound.

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The Growth and Development Reporter for the Island Packet, Kacen Bayless is a native of Ballwin, 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.