Okatie Elementary to open Monday despite nearby toxic fire. Officials monitoring air

The burning recycling fire at a site known as Trash Mountain is less than a mile away from Okatie Elementary, but officials say a sensor installed at the school shows the air is safe for students.

Beaufort County School District superintendent Frank Rodriguez said the school will not hold outdoor activities on Monday, the first day of the school year, and that he plans to post extra nurses at the school in case issues arise. The district will continue to monitor the situation and update parents over the weekend, Rodriguez said.

If air conditions worsen, the district will move the start of school back by two hours. According to Rodriguez, the air particulate levels from Trash Mountain that have stunned state and federal officials are highest in the morning but are still below hazardous levels.

Rodriguez spoke to the district’s board of education at Friday’s work session, saying that he had been in contact with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency that morning. He said the sensor’s readings at the school were showing the lowest amount of particulates in the air of the week on Friday, after examining the readings the sensor has put out every 15 minutes.

A fire has been smoldering at nearby Able Contracting Inc., a Ridgeland-area recycling center less than a mile away in Jasper County, since June. Firefighters have been regularly deployed to fight the flames at the company’s 45- to 56-foot tall trash pile, and at least 25 neighbors had evacuated as of Aug. 9, according to previous reporting by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette.

Despite reassurance from Rodriguez, several board members expressed concerns about student and teacher safety. Board member Tricia Fidrych said she had had troubling conversations Thursday with Okatie Elementary teachers, who said the building has a “burnt fan-belt smell.”

“In certain parts of the building, their eyes are stinging,” she said.

District chief of operations Robert Oetting said that this smell and the teachers’ stinging eyes was not related to the fire, but to a frequency drive on an air conditioning unit motor at the school, and was confined to one hallway. He said the issue has been resolved.

DHEC will be present at the school’s 2 p.m. open house on Friday to answer student and parent questions.

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.