July 28, 2014

Lakeside toxic waste dump operator quits

A company hired 11 years ago to safeguard Lake Marion from the hazards of an aging toxic waste dump resigned Monday after a dispute with state regulators over the way it spends money.

A company hired 11 years ago to safeguard Lake Marion from the hazards of an aging toxic waste dump resigned Monday after a dispute with state regulators over the way it spends money.

Kestrel Horizons LLC, an Upstate company that oversees the dump, will receive $450,000 as a final payment for its services, which are to end Oct. 31, according to a transition agreement signed by the company and state regulators.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control pushed Kestrel to quit, saying that the landfill near Sumter could be overseen more cheaply by someone else – without compromising environmental protection.

Agency director Catherine Templeton cited $10 million in administrative costs as cause for the agency’s dissatisfaction.

In return for Kestrel’s resignation, DHEC agreed not to sue the company or take administrative action against Kestrel. An interim site administrator will be brought in to manage the landfill after Oct. 31.

But natural resources lawyers who fought in court for years to close the 279-acre landfill said they were concerned by Monday’s developments.

“This just tells me we need to maintain surveillance,’’ said Jim Quinn, who successfully sued on behalf of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources to close the landfill. “We need strict scrutiny to make sure it is not leaking.’’

Part of Kestrel’s job has been to manage toxin-polluted water that builds up inside the landfill, as well as monitor for chemicals that many expect will seep into groundwater through an aging liner beneath the oldest section of the dump.

The landfill was established quietly in 1978 with little resistance from DHEC. The dump’s former owner, Safety Kleen, declared bankruptcy and shut down in 2000. The facility is a few hundred yards from Lake Marion, a popular recreational lake and drinking water source, about a 45-minute drive southeast of Columbia.

Columbia attorney Bob Guild, who was involved in the landmark lawsuit to shutter the dump, said he worries that losing Kestrel means DHEC will try to skimp on monitoring and oversight costs needed to protect Lake Marion.

“I just fear that DHEC is setting us up to do it on the cheap,’’ Guild said. “No one ever said it was going to be cheap. It would have been far less expensive had they not chosen a very bad place to put this (waste) long ago.’’

Attempts to reach Kestrel’s principal executive, Bill Stephens, were unsuccessful Monday and last week. His company has a team of veteran environmental engineers, some with more than three decades of experience.

In a joint news release Monday with DHEC, Stephens said that “this is a complex job’’ and more money is needed to take care of the site.

“We will work closely with the interim administrator to make sure there is a smooth transition,’’ Stephens said in the release. “Like DHEC, our chief goals have been, and continue to be, the welfare of the people of South Carolina and protection of our state’s environment.’’

Templeton was not available Monday, but told The State newspaper Friday that she’s looking to both save money and protect the environment. As more monitoring wells are being installed at the site, she said DHEC wanted Kestrel to resign.

Monday’s news release did not mention expenses, but Templeton praised Kestrel’s past efforts on environmental protection.

“After more than a decade of superb environmental stewardship, Bill Stephens and his Kestrel team will transition site activities to an interim administrator to carry the Pinewood site into the future,’’ Templeton’s statement said. “DHEC and the state of South Carolina owe them a debt of gratitude for protecting the safety and health of the people of Sumter County and all of us who depend on the waters of Lake Marion.”

Templeton’s agency is seeking to hire an independent consultant to conduct a comprehensive environmental assessment of the Pinewood landfill.

Earlier this year, Templeton said not enough revenue was being generated to maintain the site, prompting landfill managers to use cleanup funds that could be otherwise used if a leak occurred.

Much of the money to maintain the site, which must be monitored for 100 years, comes from an annuity purchased as part of a 2003 bankruptcy settlement with the site’s former operator, Safety Kleen.

The annuity is bringing in about $1.2 million each year, but site operating costs have topped $5.8 million on average annually, according to DHEC records.

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