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Contaminated water from trash pile fire flowing directly to Okatie River, advisory group says

Jasper firefighters spend an hour to extinguish fire at SC trash debris mountain

Able Contracting's Material Recovery Center ignites as firefighters work to extinguish flames.
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Able Contracting's Material Recovery Center ignites as firefighters work to extinguish flames.

The dark-colored, putrid-smelling water flowing from the smoking mountain of debris near Okatie is going into a ditch leading to the Okatie River, nonprofit Savannah Riverkeeper confirmed Friday.

The water, which contained high levels of arsenic, magnesium and semi-volatile organic compounds according to data from Beaufort County and the Environmental Protection Agency, is flowing from the Able Contracting site into a ditch that leads directly to the Okatie River watershed, as The Island Packet reported Aug. 15. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the next day that the water was being contained and recycled on-site and was not contaminating the Okatie River.

Savannah Riverkeeper, a non-profit advocacy group, investigated the firefighting runoff flowing from the trash pile fire this week and confirmed The Island Packet’s Aug. 15 report.

Beaufort County officials had earlier expressed concerns about the potential of runoff water from the trash pile site entering the Okatie River watershed, as well as the high levels of arsenic, magnesium and other metals and bacteria found in water samples near the site.

DHEC said Aug. 16 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.

On Friday, DHEC changed its assessment. “While site conditions don’t allow all runoff water to be contained,” the agency said in a press release, “additional steps were taken today at the Able Site to address potential water quality impacts and odor from runoff water leaving the site.”

Savannah Riverkeeper, the nonprofit advocacy group focused on keeping the Savannah River watershed clean and healthy, agreed to conduct independent tests in the marshes of the Okatie River to investigate concerns about potential runoff.

Tonya Bonitatibus, executive director of the advocacy group, said her water quality test results would not be back until next week, but “It’s clear with our investigation that water is not staying on-site.”

“It’s flowing quickly downstream,” she said, “and it’s going out two different sides, actually. Some of it’s headed to the New River, and some of it’s going to the Okatie River.”

Bonitatibus said her biggest concern is the kinds of toxins and high levels of metals that have been dumping into the Okatie and New River watersheds “for months now.” The EPA’s involvement in the cleanup will end after the fire is extinguished, and DHEC will take over.

“How do we make sure people are safe after this?” she asked.

A berm had previously prevented runoff water from entering the ditch, but on Aug. 2, Jill Stewart, DHEC’s director of Dams Safety & Stormwater Permitting, informed Beaufort County staff that the berm was removed, according to a summary report of the call.

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Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

After The Island Packet’s report about the possibility of runoff entering the Okatie River, state Sen. Tom Davis visited the site and said he asked representatives from the EPA and DHEC about the issue.

“Listening now to Matt Huyser, a member of the EPA’s Regional Emergency Response team. He says tests of the groundwater in and around the Jasper County dump site do not indicate the presence of any contaminants that threaten the Okatie River watershed. Those tests will continue,” Davis tweeted on Aug. 16.

Davis said he hopes DHEC will acknowledge the existence of the problem and its severity and “ensure the contaminated firefighting water is retained onsite, as was promised.”

Beaufort County Councilman Mike Covert watched a video from Bonitatibus that showed water from the firefighting runoff leaving the site and then tweeted, “THIS CANNOT continue to go untouched! This contaminated water is now flowing in to ditches and pitfalls that could lead to our rivers!!! Why is the containment promise not happening?”

At the site Friday, the EPA is reportedly using an aerator to pump oxygen into the ditch behind Able Contracting to improve the water quality by removing hydrogen sulfide, according to Courtney Swanson, EPA’s on-scene coordinator.

Asked about capturing and recirculating the water, as DHEC said was being done, Swanson said the agency is trying, but there are “difficulties with doing so.” The water that is being captured is being pumped to Beaufort-Jasper Water Sewer Authority for disposal, Swanson said.

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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.
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