EPA finds hydrogen cyanide in the air, Beaufort Co. worries about arsenic in Okatie River

High levels of the fatal gas hydrogen cyanide were detected at the trash pile site near Okatie Thursday afternoon, the Environmental Protection Agency reported, prompting door-to-door visits to neighboring businesses suggesting workers leave.

Meanwhile, the dark-colored, putrid smelling water flowing from the towering pile of debris to a nearby watershed contains high levels of arsenic, magnesium, semi-volatile organic compounds and bacteria, according to data from Beaufort County and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some county environmental managers worry the toxins are entering the Okatie River.

In the short term, government agencies are testing the air near the site for toxins such as hydrogen cyanide and acrolein that are harmful to the health of residents. While these tests are conducted, Beaufort County managers worry what high levels of metals and bacteria mean for a “watershed of concern” like the Okatie River.

The pile at Able Contracting Inc. near Okatie, 45 to 56 feet high, started smoking in early June and, for two months, residents in the area sought shelter in their homes and pleaded with government officials and agencies to do something. At night, the smoke billowed down their street and into their homes. Those who live and work in the area behind Riverwalk Business Park complained about breathing problems and headaches from the smoke and smell. The smoke became so unbearable that a pregnant woman next door to the pile was forced to make a late-night visit to the hospital.

On Thursday afternoon, after high levels of hydrogen cyanide were detected, EPA on-scene coordinator Matthew Huyser said EPA staff warned people working near Riverwalk Business Park about the dangers of the gas so they could decide whether to leave. Huyser said the EPA planned to douse water on the trash mound’s spots where gas was detected.

Hydrogen cyanide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a colorless gas that “interferes with the normal use of oxygen by nearly every organ of the body. Exposure to hydrogen cyanide can be rapidly fatal.”

South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control officials monitored air quality near the site for more than a month, and asked the EPA to test air and water samples for toxins. The full results of these tests were expected to be released on Monday, but, as of Thursday, haven’t been made public. Asked about the results Thursday, EPA spokesman James Pinkney said there was a technical error and the results would be released online later in the day. On Monday, EPA On-Scene Coordinator Matthew Huyser said air quality tests found the toxin acrolein near the site.

According to the EPA, acrolein “is toxic to humans following inhalation, oral or dermal exposures.”

Now, months after they first complained of odor and smoke, the residents on rural Schinger Avenue have evacuated their homes, and DHEC and the EPA are working together to extinguish the fire. They say it will take weeks. With the cleanup underway, Beaufort County officials are now concerned about the long-term effects of firefighting efforts on the environment.

Illicit Discharge, Bacteria and Arsenic

According to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Beaufort County staff visited the site of the pile in July over concerns that water from the firefighting runoff was entering a nearby ditch that leads directly to the Okatie River. Although the site is in Jasper County, the ditch runs through Beaufort County. Staff members saw runoff from the site, but a berm prevented water from entering the ditch. However, the workers noticed “black smelly water” at a connecting outfall under S.C. 170.

On July 16, county staff sampled the water leaving the Able property and the outfall for bacteria, E. coli and metals. According to a report from Beaufort County staff, over 120,000 colonies of bacteria were found, which is above the EPA standards. Levels of arsenic and magnesium above EPA safe standards were also found in the samples.

On July 26, Beaufort County and DHEC staff members discussed plans Jasper County, DHEC and the EPA had to extinguish the fire, control runoff from the site and prevent a similar situation from happening again.

Beaufort County staff workers “expressed their concerns for impacts not seen now, but potentially years down the road” for the Okatie and Colleton rivers, according to a report of the meeting. DHEC staff told the county staff that the runoff could be considered “illicit discharge.”

On Aug. 2, Jill Stewart, DHEC’s director of Dams Safety & Stormwater Permitting, informed Beaufort County staff that the berm that prevented runoff water from flowing into the watershed was removed, according to a summary report of the call.

“Watershed of Concern”

At a Beaufort County Stormwater Management Utility Board meeting Wednesday, board members and county staff worried about the possibility of runoff flowing into the Okatie River.

“The bacteria levels are high and the TMDL of concern is bacteria,” said Daniel Rybak, newly appointed Stormwater Utility manager. Okatie “is a watershed of concern,” he said. ”This offsite drainage that is beyond our control is affecting our waters ... potentially permanently.”

According to the EPA, a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) analysis determines the maximum amount of pollution a body of water can receive and still meet water quality standards. The process includes estimating pollutants from all sources, linking the sources with their effects on water quality and establishing mechanisms to achieve water quality standards.

“I think that the board needs to make a strong stance on this because I think there’s an opportunity for something really bad to happen to the Okatie River if it’s not watched the way it needs to be watched,” board Chairman William H. Bruggeman said at the meeting.

However, D. Alan Warren, program director for Environmental Health Science at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, said he thinks the runoff from the trash pile fire is too far away from the Okatie River to have any effect.

“Making the assumption that the Okatie is being impacted at all is a bit of a stretch at this point,” Warren said. “I’ve seen no evidence that that’s the case, nor have I attempted to gain that evidence.”

Rybak said county staff will continue to monitor the site every three weeks and will meet with state and federal environmental agencies to figure out a plan for the future.

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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.