Liz Farrell

Most sickening part of trash mountain in Okatie area is government’s slow response | Opinion

It’s a dystopian sight to behold.

Peaked and stratified in shades of discarded grays, “trash mountain,” as it’s come to be called, has an impressive Seussian quality to it and the surreal distinction of appearing to be both very close and very far away at the very same time.

This optical illusion is fitting for the behemoth, which began to take shape about five or so years ago at Able Contracting’s construction and demolition site in the Okatie area and is now one intense and hot mess of a problem.

The business, a source of pride for its owner, who says he thought he was doing something cool when he started his recycling operation, sits at the end of Schinger Avenue — a residential and industrial lane off S.C. 170, tucked behind restaurants and warehouses that, like this mountain of construction trash, weren’t always there.

But, as we know, opportunistic businessmen, unscrupulous politicians and raggedy governance can sure change a landscape.

They can also change the air we breathe.

For the past two months, the mound — sometimes on fire, sometimes smoldering — has been emitting unavoidable fumes. Schinger residents, who say they’ve experienced frequent headaches as well as chronic breathing and sleeping problems, have described it as worse than ever before, noting that their homes have been filling with smoke lately.

Neighbors who once spent summer nights relaxing in their yards can’t even find sanctuary on their couches with the windows shut tightly.

The comparison of the mountain to an optical illusion is apt because the answer to the question of who is to blame for its current state is as complex as an M.C. Escher drawing, especially when you get into issues like zoning, property owners’ rights and oversight.

But this answer can also be simply expressed by the word “yes.”

Is it the business owner’s fault that this has gotten so out of hand? Is it Jasper County government’s fault? Is it DHEC’s fault?

Yes.

But there’s plenty of time and docket space to sort out the particulars later.

At the end of this day, the question that needs an answer is one that I’m asking DHEC.

What is the point of you?

DHEC issued an emergency order on Wednesday night, requiring Chandler Lloyd, the owner of Able Contracting, to present a plan to clean up the site.

On Thursday, DHEC warned residents about the dangers of remaining in the area.

Great.

But that took too long.

I can’t speak to what went down with DHEC beginning June 3, when the fire was first reported.

But I know that where there’s trash mountains, there’s toxins. And where there’s trash mountains on fire, there’s smoke. And where there’s people, there shouldn’t be toxic smoke.

Where there’s people breathing toxic smoke, there’s supposed to be a regulatory agency to step in and say “Whoa. This isn’t safe.”

I’m not a scientist, though.

I can speak to what went down beginning July 19, when The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette began asking DHEC about trash mountain.

But I’ll let the Schinger Avenue residents and the owner of Able Contracting, who says he told DHEC and Jasper County that he needed help containing this fire, answer that:

Nothing.

At least nothing that was of any direct, immediate or personal relief to the residents, most of whom aren’t members of the socioeconomic class that can afford prolonged emergency hotel stays.

And I truly don’t understand.

While Jasper County firefighters have been at the site to put out the flames and contain the smoke, it’s not been frequent enough, according to those living and working in it.

And while DHEC employees showed up Friday morning to go door to door, one can’t help but notice that it’s Aug. 2.

DHEC officials will likely say that any perceived delay in their response is because they had to get the right data first, that they had to figure out things like regulatory jurisdiction, that they had to work within the law, etc. etc., etc., are we off the hook yet? — and all of that is going to be true — but the simple act of communication does not rely on the communicator having all the answers in the moment.

DHEC is not the only government agency that doesn’t seem to understand that. Right now it’s the only one with a fiery trash mountain to figure out, though.

DHEC could have very easily sent one person to Schinger Avenue to make a personal connection with the residents weeks ago. In fact, the sheet of paper they were handing out Friday that listed area nonprofits could’ve gone out immediately.

There are only about a dozen homes on that street. It wouldn’t have taken more than a day to reach everyone just to say, “There’s a problem. We see it. We’re figuring it out. How are you? What are you experiencing? What questions do you have for us?”

But that would’ve required some thinking outside of the bureaucratic box.

Instead, they just let things get worse. They appear to have dealt with it within their own four walls.

When DHEC began testing air quality in the Schinger Avenue area July 3, residents weren’t alerted.

When toxin levels spiked on July 24 — and were officially considered hazardous by EPA standards — residents weren’t alerted.

That it took DHEC officials another week to say anything at all to residents is inexcusable.

Moving forward, they need to change their approach.

Communicate with those breathing bad air.

Offer help.

And figure out what went wrong so this mess doesn’t happen again.

Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”
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