Chemical plant demolition needs further explanation

First, the good news: The demolition of a northern Beaufort County industrial plant has been halted indefinitely because of environmental concerns.

The bad news is that the public so far does not know what's at the rural site in the Lobeco community, or what risks the demolition may pose to the environment.

Beaufort County issued a stop-work order Jan. 18 because the owners of the chemical plant did not have a demolition permit.

To its credit, the county is monitoring the site daily to see that no more demolition work is done until the stop-work order is lifted.

Meanwhile, the county awaits guidance from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on an environmental assessment before it allows demolition to resume.

The county is smart to seek the all-clear from state regulators, not an inspector hired by the site owner.

Now, the public is counting on DHEC to act on its behalf to watch out for groundwater and all other natural resources -- as well as nearby residents and property owners.

A good first step would be to release an authoritative description of the chemicals and potential hazards present at the plant site throughout its existence and partial demolition.

A full description of how the plant has been monitored for public and environmental safety would be helpful.

Two companies that previously owned the site -- ArrMaz Specialty Chemicals and American Color and Chemical -- sounded an alarm on the demolition. They call it "haphazard and reckless" in a lawsuit they filed against the current owner, Coastal Demolition and Construction of Tampa, Fla.

The two previous owners share the cost of cleaning up unspecified chemicals in the soil and groundwater. Their lawsuit states that the new owner has not abided by clean-up agreements and regulations. The suit contends that systems in place to purify contaminated groundwater have been damaged, as well as monitoring devices used to determine whether chemicals are spreading onto nearby residential properties.

Clearly, enough red flags have been raised to warrant DHEC providing a more complete accounting to the public.

Even if it's too early to draw conclusions, more facts must be shared. The public should not be left guessing. What does the state know? What are the risks? What will DHEC do to assure public safety and environmental integrity?