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Have questions about the Able Contracting fire near Okatie? Here’s what we know

The towering mound of miscellaneous debris at Able Contracting in Jasper County has been on fire since early June. For more than two months, the fire has released noxious fumes and an acrid odor. 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.

As the Environmental Protection Agency and the S.C. Department of Environmental Health and Control work to extinguish the fire and clean up the mess, some questions remain unanswered.

If you have an Able Contracting fire-related question or information you think would be important or helpful to share with others, please email kbayless@islandpacket.com, comment on this story or direct message us on the Island Packet’s Facebook page or the Beaufort Gazette’s Facebook page.

Here’s what we know so far

What exactly is “Trash Mountain”?

The “mountain” is a giant pile of wood, cardboard, plastic and all different kinds of debris at a facility owned by Able Contracting Inc. at 472 Schinger Ave., a half-mile off S.C. 170 in Jasper County. The business is classified by the state as a “recovered material processing facility.”

The mound, which has existed since 2013, once stood 90 feet tall. The Island Packet’s most recent drone assessment of the pile measured it between 45 to 56 feet tall. The debris covers nearly 4 acres, according to the EPA. The site contains approximately 130,000 cubic yards of trash.

The pile has frequently caught fire over the years, including one instance in 2015 that took approximately 31 hours and about 1.6 million gallons of water to extinguish.

Is the air OK to breathe?

It’s still being tested. Officials at both the EPA and DHEC say they are continually monitoring the area for smoke and other toxins.

The air quality near the site of the fire has ranged from dangerous levels to “good” levels since DHEC first started monitoring the air in July. At its worst, in late July, an air quality monitor near the site detected air pollution levels 16 times higher than what the EPA considers safe.

In mid-August, the EPA said acrolein and hydrogen cyanide, dangerous toxins, were detected in the air. EPA On-Scene Coordinator Matthew Huyser said the readings of hydrogen cyanide — which can be fatal for people exposed to it — were at low levels, but surrounding businesses were asked to leave the area out of “an abundance of caution.”

However, in late August, Huyser said the air quality near the site appears to be improving.

According to the DHEC website, air quality readings for a portion of Short Cut Road on Aug. 22 were within the “moderate” air quality index category. Particulate readings from the monitors at Grace Coastal Church, EPA’s Command Post, Okatie Elementary School, Sun City, Brook Mill Apartments and other parts of Short Cut Road reported “good” air quality.

Who needs to evacuate?

On Aug. 16, the EPA took over coordination and is paying for the 25 residents who lived the closest to the fire to remain away from the area for at least two more weeks. With the smoke entering homes along Schinger Avenue, 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 Ave. and 472 Schinger Ave. should “voluntarily evacuate and seek alternative housing for at least the next seven days until 8 a.m. Friday, Aug. 9,” the declaration said. Before the EPA took over, the evacuation notice was extended through Aug. 15 by Jasper County.

Is this affecting the Okatie River?

The dark-colored, putrid smelling water that was flowing from the towering pile of debris to a nearby ditch that connects to the Okatie River contains high levels of arsenic, magnesium, semi-volatile organic compounds and bacteria, according to data from Beaufort County and the EPA. Some county environmental managers worry the toxins are entering the Okatie River.

After The Island Packet reported these concerns, DHEC said in a news release 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.

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

Coastal Conservation League South Coast Director Rikki Parker said there needs to be more testing on the Okatie River to give people the confidence that it’s safe.

Is someone putting the fire out?

The EPA said its main goal is to extinguish the fire, and once that is completed, the EPA plans to leave the site and DHEC will assume responsibility. Jasper and Beaufort counties and the government agencies have agreed to work together to extinguish the self-combusting fires, which includes removing waste from the site until it stops reigniting.

Where is all this waste going?

Material removed from the site is being shipped to the Hickory Hill Landfill and the Oakwood Landfill which specializes in construction and demolition debris, Huyser said. According to the DHEC website, more than 461 trucks had removed 4,387 tons as of Aug. 25.

Is the smoke I see driving down S.C. 170 (Okatie Highway) from this trash fire?

It’s likely. DHEC is posting a daily “smoke forecast” update of where the “fire smoke plume” will be pushed by the wind, according to their website. It does say locations closest to the Able Contracting Recycling facility are “more likely to experience smoke at any given time.” DHEC has real-time data on air quality monitors on its website.

How is it affecting nearby Okatie Elementary?

For the first week of school, students were not participating in any outdoor activities, such as recess, while officials continued to monitor the air quality. The school said on its Facebook page that the air quality has been improving and if it stays that way over the weekend, recess would resume on Aug. 26.

Where can I get the latest updates from the EPA and S.C. DHEC?

Both agencies have set up their own web pages dedicated to the Able Contracting fire. You can check daily air monitoring reports and other updates on the EPA and DHEC websites.

Is someone getting in trouble for this?

Yes. Well, kind of. Criminal charges are already being brought against the trash piles’ owner, Chandler Lloyd, and a co-conspirator, Hiram Lowther, for violating environmental laws in relation to the mound of debris between 2015 and 2016. DHEC Chief Criminal Investigator Michael Tempel is listed as a witness on the federal indictments.

Multiple lawsuits have also already been filed by neighboring businesses and residents.

On its website, DHEC summarizes Able Contracting’s regulatory history.

Should I go to the doctor?

DHEC’s website states that people “who have trouble breathing, experience an increase in coughing episodes, or have tightness in their chest should seek medical attention from their doctor or health care provider.” At a community meeting on Aug. 20, a toxicologist at the EPA said that certain toxins can be detected in blood tests.

Can a fire like this happen again once the EPA leaves?

Possibly. When asked at the community meeting if the EPA could guarantee a situation like this won’t happen again, EPA On-Scene Coordinator Matthew Huyser replied, “I cannot.”

Who do I contact if I want to talk to my elected officials about this?

For any issues/concerns like this, residents can call their local officials to voice their complaints, worries, encourage them to take action, etc. Jasper County residents are are represented locally by Jasper County Council, in the S.C. Congress, and on the federal level. Here are the telephone numbers for the local and state elected officials.

County Council:

Curtis Brantley: 843-473-9265

Barbara Clark: 843-949-0477

Henry Etheridge: 843-949-0499

D. Thomas Johnson: 843-949-0480

L. Martin Sauls, IV: 843-949-0498

South Carolina Senate:

Tom Davis, District 46: 843-252-8583

Margie Bright Matthews, District 45: 803-212-6108

South Carolina House of Representatives:

William G. “Bill” Herbkersman, District 118: 843-255-2264

Wm. Weston J. Newton, District 120: 843-706-6111

Shedron D. Williams, District 122: 803-942-3059

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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.
Lana Ferguson has covered news of all sorts for The Island Packet & Beaufort Gazette since June 2018. Before coming to the Lowcountry, she worked for publications in her home state of Virginia and graduated from the University of Mississippi, where she was editor of the college’s daily newspaper.
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