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EPA descends on Cheraw, begins toxic cleanup

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intensified cleanup efforts this week in a small S.C. town after toxins from a Superfund site poured into homes during Hurricane Florence nearly two weeks ago.

Cleanup crews spent much of Thursday washing down the interior of four houses near Huckleberry Park in Cheraw in an effort to rid them of PCBs. The chemicals once were used heavily by industries but later were found to be toxic.

It could be a week before it is safe for residents to return to their homes.

“The presence of PCBs inside a residential home at any level is a concern,’’ said the EPA’s Matt Huyser, who is coordinating the Cheraw effort. “We are attempting as best we can to decontaminate’’ the homes.

Until the cleanup job is done, the agency has asked residents to stay away from their houses because of the pollution threat posed by PCBs, a toxic substance suspected of causing cancer.

The EPA asked residents who had not evacuated during the hurricane-caused flood to leave while the cleanup work is done. At least one family is being put up at a motel in the Cheraw area.

Huyser said the EPA also has sampled yards near a contaminated ditch and creek system that are part of the Superfund site.

The creeks and ditch overflowed during Florence, flooding some adjacent yards. The yards once contained PCBs but recently had been cleaned up by the EPA. The question now is whether pollution from the contaminated ditch has tainted the yards again.

The Superfund cleanup effort is being driven by the discovery about two years ago that Burlington Industries once released wastewater into a ditch that ran off its property and into neighborhoods. PCBs, the substance found in the homes last week, had been found in the ditch.

“What we are focusing on is areas where sediment may have accumulated, washing up from the creek or the ditch,’’ said Huyser, who said he hopes to get test results this weekend. Those results will guide the EPA in its cleanup efforts, he said.

Evans Tindal, who runs a company that acquired the Burlington plant in the late 1980s, said the contamination is not coming from anything his business is doing. His company, Highland Industries, is trying to assist with the cleanup, he said.

“We have volunteered to provide additional aid to the EPA in its ongoing efforts to clean the contaminated Burlington Industries Cheraw Superfund site, now exacerbated by the hurricane,’’ Tindal said in a prepared statement. “Highland Industries will help remove and dispose materials from the EPA’s efforts to clean affected homes neighboring our facility.’’