Liz Farrell

Sun City, other residents near trash mountain had better keep pushing for answers | Opinion

Water used at toxic dump recycled through trough system to keep debris from igniting

Beaufort County officials are concerned that water at Able Construction's Material Recovery Center may have run off into county's watershed.
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Beaufort County officials are concerned that water at Able Construction's Material Recovery Center may have run off into county's watershed.

Matt Huyser is from Michigan, but he lives in the Atlanta area now.

He graduated from Clemson.

He is a husband. He is a father.

He recommends ordering a slice of the carrot cake at The River’s Edge Restaurant if you’re ever in Cheraw.

He has been in the land of tulips. He has danced in wooden shoes.

And he is an on-site coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

On Tuesday night, Huyser, tall, slim and wearing double denim, began his presentation by sharing his biography with the 100 or so concerned people gathered at Okatie Elementary School. They were there to learn more from the EPA about the hulking, toxic mountain of trash that has been burning just a mile away on Schinger Avenue.

Huyser managed to temporarily humanize the otherwise mechanical and esoteric federal agency, which is leading the effort to contain the fire.

His personal introduction was a seed, wisely planted and left to grow into an olive tree, from which Huyser, now a likable guy with unlikable answers, could pluck a branch when the crowd — residents of Sun City Hilton Head, Oldfield and other nearby neighborhoods — inevitably demanded more than he could deliver.

“This is not your fault,” Huyser assured them.

It was not an absolution — how could it be? — but perhaps a commiseration, an acknowledgment that they have been wronged and their anger is justified.

The two dozen-plus people who stood and asked about the fire, the air, the river, their health, the plan to hold villains accountable, seemed to respect his efforts.

Almost all of them started by thanking Huyser and the EPA — because at least they were there and willing to take some of this heat in person.

The softening, however, did not stop them from grilling them.

Trash mountain has been in various states of combustion since June 3, when Schinger-area residents and businesses began reporting headaches and breathing problems to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which responded slowly and clumsily for nearly two months before it had no choice but to react frantically and ineptly.

The trash mound was, at its peak, 90 feet high in places.

It is now estimated to contain 130,000 cubic yards of non-recyclable garbage from construction sites.

“Yes, there is some plastic in that pile,” Huyser said Tuesday night.

There is also acrolein, an irritant found in cigarette smoke that isn’t known to cause cancer, but when present at certain levels will lead the EPA to step in on a disaster cleanup.

The trash site is owned by Chandler Lloyd of Able Contracting, and it is in unincorporated Jasper County — within breathing — and spitting up — distance of Beaufort County.

As many reminded the EPA on Tuesday night, this is not the first time the mountain has burned to the point that this particular business owner — who has referred to himself as a “poster child” for DHEC — has required government assistance.

Before the microphones were passed around, the EPA repeatedly reminded the crowd that the night was about the future, about moving on, solving the problem. It was not about the past. It was not about what was or wasn’t done before they became involved in late July. It wasn’t about who allowed this to happen in the first place.

It was about what the EPA was doing.

“Right here. Right now,” Huyser said.

The EPA.

Not DHEC. Not Jasper County. Not Chandler Lloyd.

“Please, please, please, limit it to one question,” another EPA representative said before handing off the mic.

The first inquiry made it clear where the audience’s heart was.

“Everything sounds great what you said,” a man said. “What’s the impact on the river?”

The EPA could only speak to what it is doing to keep the water it is using to put out the fire from getting in the Okatie River.

DHEC would have to answer beyond that. DHEC is working on a plan, Huyser said.

He did offer one insight: This fire was being fought long before EPA got there.

A woman stood.

Have there been reports of people getting sick? If so, what are their symptoms?

“I don’t have personal health information,” Huyser said.

She sat down.

Another person wanted to know how the EPA could guarantee that this wouldn’t happen again.

“I cannot,” Huyser said.

Another man asked Huyser why the EPA posts such little up-to-date air quality data on its site.

Huyser explained that bureaucracy is causing the delay. There is a process. There is a system. There are people who have to look at the numbers first.

A man with a familiar accent stood up.

“I’m from New York.”

The audience laughed.

Then he brought up Sept. 11.

The laughter stopped.

“We were told (by the EPA) that everything was safe,” he said.

It wasn’t.

When the EPA leaves this area, the man said, “we’re on our own.”

How can we trust you? he wanted to know.

“The experience of 9/11, that is not lost on us,” Huyser said. “We are well aware of that. We don’t deserve your trust. We have to earn your trust.

“We want to be as transparent as possible with you,” he said of the EPA repeatedly Tuesday evening.

The audience responded in kind: We want more of that. Be open. Be proactive. Tell us what is happening. Don’t wait until it looks good for you. Tell us now.

The trash mountain saga is far from over.

In the past few days, the EPA has doused and removed hundreds of tons of refuse from Able and taken it to two area landfills.

Air quality in the area is improving.

Both DHEC and the EPA have established dedicated web pages to communicate directly with the public.

Tuesday’s meeting, Huyser said, was the first time he’s held a forum like this where residents could ask questions.

It was a testament to this community.

And a reminder that the public needs to keep pushing for answers, for action and for accountability.

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