EPA addresses trash mound fire cleanup at community meeting Tuesday

Environmental Protection Agency officials updated neighbors and the public Tuesday evening on the ongoing fire and contamination cleanup at Able Contracting in Jasper County, telling the crowd that eliminating the fire and cleaning up the site will take several weeks.

EPA representatives, meeting at Okatie Elementary School with businesses first and then residents and others affected by the smoldering mound, said the first priority is extinguishing the fire.

The mountain of construction debris on the Able Contracting site off S.C. 170 is still burning. It’s been more than two months since the South Carolina Department of Environmental Health and Control received the first complaint about the smoke. Since then, residents near the pile have fled their homes; businesses have been forced to close early or, in one instance, leave the area; and there are growing concerns about what this months-long fire means for the health of residents and the environment.

The EPA took the lead in the cleanup and fire extinguishing efforts on Saturday, spokesman James Pinkney said, and is providing alternative housing for the 25 people displaced by the fire.

The EPA has installed 10 air quality monitors in the area, including in Sun City.

“The estimated time frame is two weeks before we recommend home owners return,” Pinkney said.

The agency’s main goal is to extinguish the fire, and once that is completed, DHEC will assume responsibility for the rest of the site. EPA On-Scene Coordinator Matt Huyser said the federal agency has budgeted $1.2 million for the site, but that amount is expected to increase.

On Friday, state Sen. Tom Davis visited the trash site and met with representatives from the EPA, DHEC and Jasper and Beaufort counties. The counties and government agencies have agreed to work together to extinguish the self-combusting fires, which includes removing waste from the site until it stops reigniting.

On Monday, Davis said the agencies and counties’ main objectives are: protect people living near the trash pile fire from the “noxious smoke”; extinguish the fires in a way that minimizes harm to the environment; “ensure there has been and will be no contamination of the groundwater” near the trash pile site, “including the Okatie River watershed”; and, consider changing state and local regulations related to recycling facilities.

Davis said approximately 20 to 25 truckloads of waste are being removed from the site every day, with each truck containing 20 tons. Huyser said the material from the site was shipped to the Hickory Hill Landfill & Recycling Center until Saturday, when the trucks began delivering the debris to the Oakwood Landfill, which specializes in construction and demolition debris.

On Thursday, The Island Packet reported about concerns from Beaufort County officials about the potential of runoff water from the trash pile entering the Okatie River watershed, as well as high levels of arsenic, magnesium, semi-volatile organic compounds and bacteria found in water samples near the site. DHEC said in a news release Friday that the runoff from firefighting “has shown the presence of some organic chemicals and metals. To minimize downstream impacts to waterbodies,” the independent contractor DHEC hired is recirculating water “to the extent practicable” and testing that water.

Davis said DHEC’s conclusion that the Okatie River watershed has not been contaminated is a case of “trust but verify.”

“DHEC has promised to conduct surface-water sampling around the site and in the downstream watershed to evaluate any adverse impacts, and to take action if necessary,” Davis said.

Savannah Riverkeeper, a non-profit advocacy group focused on keeping a clean and healthy Savannah River watershed, has agreed to conduct independent tests in the marshes of the Okatie River, Davis said.

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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.