WALTERBORO — More than 100 residents, after being shut out of a public hearing Thursday night on a proposed dump site to store potentially toxic waste materials, complained loudly outside the closed doors that their voices were not being heard.
The rebuff heightened tensions between members of the public and Colleton County officials in an already-impassioned debate over South Carolina Electric & Gas Co.’s proposal to build a 15-story-tall landfill on a 987-acre site in the rural county.
The county zoning board made no decision on the proposal. Additional testimony will be taken during a meeting in February.
County Planning Director Philip Slayter said the Colleton County Courthouse, where the meeting was held, was at capacity and that allowing entrance to additional residents and members of the media — including The Post and Courier — would compromise security. He said residents outside could register their comments by writing letters to the county.
Despite pleas from the crowd to move the next meeting to a larger space, Slayter said doing so would not be possible because the courthouse offers “protection” in hearing the “emotionally charged” debate.
Residents left out of the meeting said that it should have been rescheduled and moved to the high school auditorium or athletic fields to accommodate them in voicing their opinions on an issue they said has gained traction and united them unlike any other issue in recent county history.
“They’re able to secure a football field every time there’s a game,” said area resident Mary Grooms, whose family owns property adjacent to the proposed dump site. “How come not tonight?”
Anita Greene, who lives several miles away from the site, worried about the dearth of official information about the utility’s proposal, a dump that would store waste that could cause cancer, neurological problems, developmental defects and myriad other health issues if it tainted the water supply.
“The scary part is that we don’t know what’s going on in there. We don’t know what’s being said,” Greene said. “We’re the landowners and our voices don’t mean anything.”
Jay Bender, an attorney for the South Carolina Press Association, agreed with the residents, saying the county has an “obligation” to accommodate people who want to be a part of the discourse. Failing to do so violates the state’s Freedom of Information laws, he said.
“You can’t have democracy in a phone booth,” he said.
Casey Price, who has worked as a control room operator at SCE&G for 25 years, said the plant itself is a boon to the community because it provides jobs and tax revenue.
“They’re going to take all the environmental and health precautions they can,” Price said. “I don’t see the harm in it.”
Officials from SCE&G, which has drawn fire in the past for allegedly tainting a local water supply with the potentially toxic residue of its Canadys coal-burning plant, have said the landfill will meet “stringent environmental standards.” To date, testing for contamination near the plant has been inconclusive.
The zoning board heard testimony from SCE&G during the three-hour meeting.
The Post and Courier was shut out of the meeting until space opened up near the end of the public comment session.
In a rebuttal at the very end of the meeting, an SCE&G official said the site would be closely monitored and that the company would recycle as much of the coal ash — the byproduct of coal burning — as possible to make cement.SCE&G’s proposal for the site is being considered as the federal Environmental Protection Agency weighs a proposal to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous waste material. Doing so would make its disposal more strictly regulated.
An SCE&G spokesman said in the fall that the company needs to build the landfill now to prepare for when current storage facilities near the Edisto River, where the alleged contamination occurred, fill up. SCE&G purchased the land in September. The spokesman said the project’s timing “is not tied to regulations.”
The landfill, which would cost at least $15 million to build and could be operational in as few as five years, would take up about 200 acres of the site and would store ash generated at the company’s Canadys Station, which produces about 100,000 tons of ash a year and is about four miles away.