A company charged with overseeing an abandoned hazardous waste dump at Lake Marion says it warned state regulators about possible leaks from the 279-acre landfill, but they dismissed the concerns and forced the company to resign.
Kestrel Horizons LLC found evidence of hazardous waste outside approved burial areas and that toxic leaks could be occurring in places state regulators paid little attention to, according to correspondence between Kestrel and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Some of the concerns Kestrel shared with DHEC date to 2004, soon after Kestrel became manager of the site, records show.
In an interview Tuesday with The State newspaper, DHEC officials hotly disputed Kestrel’s contentions. The department has taken precautions to contain waste at the landfill, protect the lake, keep the public safe – and hold down costs, the agency said.
Never miss a local story.
But Kestrel said DHEC was unwilling to take steps that could better protect Lake Marion, a drinking water source that is widely known among boaters and anglers. The state could find it hard to stop leaks without better pollution control systems, Kestrel said in correspondence with DHEC obtained by The State newspaper.
“After months of concentrated effort trying to work with department managers and staff to fully and finally address what we believe to be serious environmental, technical, legal, regulatory, financial and economic issues, we have reached an impasse,” Kestrel managing partner Bill Stephens wrote in a July 25 letter to DHEC.
The letter said the company’s goal of preventing pollution – rather than reacting to it after leaks occur – was “incompatible with the department’s preferred approaches.”
Stephens, whose company’s last day as site manager is Friday, declined comment, saying the record speaks for itself.
Kestrel became trustee of the Pinewood landfill about 10 years ago after the property’s owner, Safety Kleen, filed for bankruptcy and left South Carolina.
The company, headquartered in Greenville, had a team of professionals with decades of experience in environmental cleanups and managing pollution at landfills. During its tenure, Kestrel and its contractors closed out remaining burial pits and shored up the property in an effort to keep hazardous material from getting out of the landfill.
This past summer, however, DHEC director Catherine Templeton forced the company to resign as trustee, saying management of the property could be done at a lower cost. At the time, she cited millions of dollars in overhead expenses Kestrel claimed reimbursement for. The company later quit and is being replaced by an interim manager next month. Separately, DHEC is seeking an outside consultant to assess the site after Kestrel leaves.
DHEC insists the landfill is not leaking, but Kestrel noted in documents filed with the agency that pollution associated with hazardous waste exists “in substantial quantities and concentrations .... outside of landfill containment” and around the perimeter of the landfill’s oldest section.
Templeton’s push to oust Kestrel followed what the company said was its effort to alert the public about potentially dangerous conditions at the old Laidlaw/Safety Kleen landfill, which was established in 1978 with few questions from DHEC. The landfill is about 1,200 feet from Lake Marion, which is about 45 miles southeast of Columbia. At one time, the landfill was one of only a few like it in the nation.
A Columbia law firm that is following the issue said Kestrel’s revelations about the Pinewood landfill are alarming and do not speak well of DHEC.
“It appears (Kestrel officials) have done everything they were supposed to do, and it appears they have gone out of their way to tell DHEC what really needs to be done on this site,” said Rick Detwiler, an attorney with the Callison, Tighe and Robinson law firm in Columbia. Detwiler said he is providing free legal work to several interested parties, but declined to name them.
DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said his agency has done the right thing. It wants to both protect the environment and save money, he said.
“We would vehemently disagree .... that we have resisted any effort to improve the landfill – that’s just not true,” Plowden said Tuesday, noting that Kestrel’s own consultants disagreed with the company on some of the issues raised with DHEC. “We have resisted any additional expenditure of funds that were not scientifically warranted.”
Kestrel Horizons told DHEC in 2005 that the property needs a more extensive system of French drains to capture any pollution leaking from the landfill, according to a Sept. 18 report to the public filed by Kestrel with DHEC. Drains that do exist have done the job, but not enough of them encircle the vulnerable parts of the dump, the company said.
The drains would help capture toxins that could leak from the sides of the landfill’s oldest section and the one most prone to seepage, Kestrel said. Contaminants could seep out the side of the landfill, in part because waste is buried in layers, which would force water toward the sides rather than all of it trickling down to the bottom, Kestrel said. DHEC has long projected leaks to go through the landfill’s bottom.
Plowden didn’t dispute DHEC’s resistance to installing some of the systems at the Safety Kleen landfill that Kestrel was pushing for. But he said the agency is hesitant to do that when it isn’t proven that any leakage has occurred. Instead, the agency prefers to use a series of monitoring wells, rather than French drains at this time, he said. If DHEC detects leaks to groundwater, it then would act to stop the pollution, agency officials said
Kestrel said it had included environmental concerns about the site in its 2014 hazardous waste permit application Kestrel needed for the property.
DHEC, however, told the company to take the concerns about the landfill out of the permit application, according to the report Kestrel prepared and sent to DHEC in September. The agency’s David Scaturo said Kestrel needed to certify its allegations, which it would not do – or drop them from the permit.
The information deleted from the permit included “information on releases of hazardous waste constituents, potential risks to the environment” and cost data showing the site was running out of money to manage the waste, according to a document Kestrel filed with DHEC in September. Kestrel said not including information in the permit would have been unethical and possibly illegal.
Another point Kestrel made is that hazardous materials appear to be outside “containment” areas and that landfill gas was leaking into soil. Gas that pollutes soil can eventually pollute groundwater.
“Don’t confuse cost cutting with sound management of economics,” Stephens said in his Sept. 18 report. “Any fool can walk in and say ‘Stop doing that, it costs money.’”