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EXCLUSIVE: Burning SC landfill, other sites failed to post adequate cleanup money

Crews started working in November to extinguish a fire at the Bennett Landfill in northwestern Chester County.
Crews started working in November to extinguish a fire at the Bennett Landfill in northwestern Chester County. (ROCK HILL) HERALD

A long-burning landfill has choked the small Upstate town of Lockhart, produced a criminal indictment and left taxpayers on the hook for more than $1 million.

But it isn’t the only South Carolina dump where operators have failed to set aside enough money for an environmental cleanup.

While most landfills have adequate funds to pay for damage they might cause to the environment, at least six trash and wood waste disposal sites have run into trouble for failing to ensure money is available for cleanups, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

In addition to the Lockhart-area dump and a sister site several miles away, four wood waste landfills have been referred for possible state enforcement action for “not having adequate financial assurance,” DHEC said Friday.

DHEC said the problems were found at disposal sites in Laurens, Saluda, Spartanburg and Oconee counties. The agency provided few details – including when the problems were found, whether the cases had been resolved and whether the landfills experienced any environmental problems.

Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, said “it’s absolutely a concern” to hear that multiple landfills have been found without adequate cleanup money.

Coleman’s comments come three weeks after a landfill executive was criminally indicted over the fire and lack of response at the Chester County landfill, just across the Union County line from the city of Lockhart.

The Bennett landfill’s Ronald Ray Olsen is charged in indictments with failing to set aside adequate cleanup money at the smoldering site near the Broad River. He also faces charges for a landfill in Lancaster County, records show. The problems occurred mostly in 2013 and 2014, records show. But the fire near Lockhart continues.

Because adequate private funds aren’t available for work at the Chester County site, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this week began efforts to extinguish the fire – at taxpayer expense. Attempts to reach Olsen were unsuccessful Friday.

The EPA, which says the cost will draw more than $1 million from the federal Superfund cleanup account, hopes to smother the fire with thick layers of dirt during the next three months, agency officials said Thursday. The landfill is a construction and demolition site, which takes concrete and other types of material. It also contains asbestos in one area, according to the EPA.

DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said that, despite problems in Chester County and a handful of other sites, the state’s solid waste landfills have adequate private financial assurance. DHEC said that landfills it examined in response to the Lockhart problem were found to be in compliance, she said in an email.

The problems at the wood waste landfills were discovered before the financial audits were done, she said. Coleman said the state needs to do a better job of policing rogue waste dump operators.

Some “people make a bunch of money in the landfill business and don’t give a durn about the environment,” said Coleman, who represents the area near the Lockhart dump. “Then the taxpayers have to pick it up to ensure this doesn’t do any harm to the environment. It’s not right.”

In Bennett’s case, Olsen withdrew cleanup money in 2008 from a financial institution. But DHEC didn’t “confirm” the problem until early 2014, according to an agency email Friday.

DHEC could not say whether it would change policies to help alert it to problems in the future.

DHEC’s revelation Friday that some wood waste landfills also haven’t posted adequate cleanup money comes amid public concern about the taxpayer cost of resolving the messes left by abandoned dumps, gold mines and other sites across South Carolina.

Taxpayers this year are being hit with about $4 million in costs to stabilize an old hazardous waste landfill on the shores of Lake Marion – an annual expense expected to be born by the public for much of the next century. The old Safety Kleen site’s owners didn’t leave adequate funds to protect the lake after the dump closed.

Meanwhile, in the past 15 years, federal taxpayers have spent $27 million to correct environmental problems at abandoned gold mines in McCormick and Chesterfield counties.

One way to attack the problem of inadequate cleanup funds is to strengthen the powers of the State Grand Jury to investigate environmental crimes, Coleman said.

“These people who blatantly and consistently thumb their nose at the DHEC regulations are the people we need to go after,” Coleman said. “Let’s put a couple of people in jail for doing this.”

Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office said he is working with business leaders and legislators to come up with a “balanced approach” that holds polluters accountable while maintaining a “pro business environment.”

In Lockhart, a city of about 500 residents, people say they just want some resolution to an issue that has made life miserable since the 24-acre Bennett dump caught fire in November.

Residents are complaining about health problems from the bombardment from burning industrial waste. Some worry about whether elevated levels of benzene and formaldehyde found in the smoke will cause long-term health problems. Both are suspected carcinogens.

“People complain to me a lot about their sinuses and their breathing, and I really think it has affected people in Lockhart,” Mayor Ailene Ashe said Friday. “Some days it is worse than others. Usually in the morning, it’s the worst.”

The situation is bad enough that the EPA has begun issuing smoke forecasts to local residents to prepare them for the day’s conditions.

Ashe and area resident Mandy Lancaster said it’s hard to believe the fire has been burning since November. Fire crews thought they had extinguished the blaze late last year, but it flared up again early in 2015 and has been smoking since.

Both said the fire continues to hurt Lockhart because authorities did not take the problems seriously at first. Only in the recent weeks has the EPA committed funds to cleanup the mess at the landfill.

“Lockhart is just a small town; most people don’t even know it exists,” Lancaster said. “If it had been a bigger city, like Spartanburg, it would have been taken care of a lot quicker.”

Lancaster, who has a 14-month-old daughter, said she was unable to sit outside at her mother’s house recently because the smoke was so thick and acrid. She described the odor as an industrial smell. She also breathed smoke at her own home nearby one morning when she stepped outside to go to work.

“The smell of smoke almost took my breath away,” Lancaster said. “It makes you feel sick to your stomach.”

By the numbers

More than $1 million

Federal money needed to clean up landfill fire

4

Number of wood waste landfills referred for possible state enforcement action for “not having adequate financial assurance”

$27 million

Amount federal taxpayers have spent in past 15 years on old gold mine cleanups

$4 million

Annual amount needed to stabilize old Pinewood hazardous waste landfill on Lake Marion’s shore

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