Okatie-area trash pile neighbors sue over fire; EPA says smoke ‘major health concern’

Neighboring businesses and residents have sued the owner of a recycling center near Ridgeland for damages caused by the smoldering toxic mound of debris as the federal Environmental Protection Agency said it has discovered a hazardous substance at the site.

Two lawsuits, one a personal-injury suit filed by Stromer Plumbing and another by business owner Ashley Eastman seeking class-action status on behalf of all other businesses and individuals near the trash pile, were filed on Friday in Jasper County.

The smoke billowing out of the mound at Able Contracting Inc., created a “dangerous environment and damages to individuals, their health, and their property interest,” the lawsuit states. The fire at 472 Schinger Ave., first reported by The Island Packet, started emitting smoke and an acrid odor in early June. Since then, those who live and work in the area around Riverwalk Business Park have complained about the fire’s smell, its potentially harmful toxins and the smoke billowing down the street and into homes at night.

EPA tests from the area around the from the 45- to 56-foot-tall pile have found at least one toxin — Acrolein — at the site. Federal Superfund money will now be used to extinguish the fire, EPA On-Scene Coordinator Matthew Huyser said Monday. The full results of the EPA’s air and water tests are expected to be released later Monday.

According to the EPA, Acrolein “is toxic to humans following inhalation, oral or dermal exposures” and “may be formed from the breakdown of certain pollutants in outdoor air or from the burning of organic matter including tobacco, or fuels.”

“The message we want to get out to the community is although we’ve identified one (hazardous substance), the major health concern to the community is the smoke,” Huyser said.

Huyser said smoke from the fire has been measured as far as 1 1/2 miles from the site some mornings. The EPA will work alongside the state and Jasper County to extinguish the fire.

Eastman’s lawsuit against Able Contracting and owner Chandler Lloyd asks for unspecified damages and seeks to represent dozens or residents and businesses affected. Jared Stromer, owner of Stromer Plumbing, on the street adjacent to the trash pile, is also suing Able Contracting for lost revenue and other damages caused by the fire.

Both lawsuits state that Able Contracting was negligent and careless in:

  • operating a recycling center, garbage dump and/or landfill in a negligent manner;
  • failing to properly maintain the waste and debris on its property;
  • failing to prevent the waste and debris from igniting and burning;
  • failing to extinguish the fire;
  • failing to use care and caution a reasonable business would have used under the circumstances.

Since early June, those who live and work in the area around Riverwalk Business Park have complained about the fire’s smell, its potentially harmful toxins and the smoke billowing down the street and into homes at night.

On Friday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control met with the EPA, an outside emergency contractor and Jasper County officials to come up with a plan to extinguish the fire.

The plan, which includes “pulling the pile apart” and watering it down, will take weeks to complete, Huyser said. He said the fire appears to have ignited on its own.

On Aug. 2, between 20 and 25 neighbors fled their homes to avoid the smoke and polluted air. Jasper County is providing temporary housing until Thursday. DHEC officials have been monitoring air quality near the site for more than a month, and the EPA has collected air and water samples on multiple occasions to test for toxins.

The results from the EPA tests — postponed several times due to “inconclusive” findings — are expected to be released on Monday. Huyser, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA, said the results will show that acrolein has been identified at the site. According to the DHEC website, the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as Superfund, states that if a hazardous substance like acrolein is “present along with a risk of exposure to the public, federal resources can be brought in to mitigate the exposure.” Because the EPA found at least one dangerous substance, federal money from the Superfund will be used to extinguish the fire and reduce the size of the pile.

Ashley Eastman, owner of Eastman Marine Construction LLC., which builds and repairs docks, sea walls and boardwalks, is down the street from Able Contracting. His lawsuit states that Able Contracting’s inability to extinguish the fire at the site caused Eastman and those who live and work in the area to suffer “personal injury, lost revenue, decreased property values and other damages.”

Jared Stromer said he decided to sue when his employees started getting sick and not coming to work due to the fire.

Attorneys Daniel Henderson and Roberts “Tabor” Vaux are representing Eastman and Stromer in both lawsuits. Chandler Lloyd, owner of Able Contracting, was not personally named in the lawsuits.

Although the EPA is now involved, DHEC is still the lead agency tasked with extinguishing the fire with the outside emergency contractor.

Related stories from Hilton Head Island Packet

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.