A truck driver is going to prison for illegally dumping toxic landfill waste in a soggy creek system that drains into one of central South Carolina’s most well-known rivers, upstream from Congaree National Park.
Michael Greene, 45, received 90 days in prison, a $25,000 fine and one-year’s probation after U.S. District Judge Michelle Childs questioned whether he understood the severity of dumping waste into a tributary of the Wateree River.
Childs issued the sentence Wednesday following pleas for mercy by Greene and his attorney. They said he didn’t realize how bad the offense was and that the dumping had no major impact on the environment — a point disputed by prosecutors.
Greene, a former prison guard who quit to become a truck driver, pleaded guilty to the illicit dumping earlier this year. He was supposed to haul toxins from a Richland County landfill to an approved disposal site in Florence, but dumped the material at least five times in Leesburg Branch Creek, Greene admitted in court.
Since the waste was supposed to go to Florence, “wouldn’t that have alerted you that this (creek) is not the place to dump anything?’’ Childs asked before passing sentence. “It is more than just ignorance.’’
Greene, dressed neatly in khakis and a white collared shirt, appeared angry and upset after the sentence. He declined comment.
Greene faced as many as three years in prison for backing up a 5,800-gallon tanker truck to Leesburg Branch in 2017 and discharging toxin-riddled water he was hauling from the Northeast landfill. Federal prosecutors sought a one-year prison sentence, but were pleased that Childs gave Greene some prison time.
Dumping toxic waste “was a little beyond throwing out some trash,’’ Childs said.
Before Wednesday’s hearing, Greene’s friends filed statements urging the judge not to give him prison time, saying he was a good person who made a mistake. Those seeking mercy for Greene included an assistant school principal, an Internal Revenue Service agent and a woman who said she and Greene once worked together at the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department.
Sentencing Greene to prison would put a hardship on his family, they said.
Chaddrick Myers, an assistant principal at Edward E. Taylor Elementary School, said Greene has donated University of South Carolina baseball tickets to students, mentored at-risk children and acted as a friend to school kids.
“I often tell him about the lack of male figures at my school, and he offers to come out to visit and speak with some of the students,’’ Myers wrote in a letter to the court. “I truly believe in Michael and have no doubt about his ability to continue succeeding in the future.’’
Kimerly Bodkin said Greene was the sole provider to her home, giving advice and counsel to her 17-year-old son. She called Greene “the only true father figure our son has had.’’
“Despite Michael’s poor choice, which jeopardizes his freedom, I do believe he could utilize his situation to be a vital lesson to himself and our son,’’ Bodkin wrote. “This is a teachable life experience that my son will surely benefit’’ from.
Greene has no criminal record, an assistant federal public defender said.
While Greene’s friends and assistant federal public defender Jimmy Rogers asked for a light sentence, assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday and area riverkeepers said penalties and sentences need to reflect the serious nature of illegally dumping pollution.
Holliday agreed with Childs, that Greene didn’t seem to understand that when he spoke in court. Holliday also discounted arguments that no harm had come to the environment, saying that pollution can sometimes take years to have toxic effects in nature.
“Greene minimized his own conduct, minimized the severity of breaking environmental laws, which is exactly the point I made when I said he needed to go to prison,’’ Holliday said after the sentencing.
Holliday, as well as Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler and Catawba-Wateree Riverkeeper Brandon Jones, said environmental crimes should not be taken lightly.
“Anytime anyone is illegally dumping waste like that, it’s a serious concern,’’ Stangler said. “It can have impacts on the aquatic environment, the animals that live there and that utilize that creek. It’s absolutely ridiculous that someone would think that’s an acceptable thing to do.’’
Jones said people should know better than to discharge waste.
“This isn’t 100 years ago when people just dumped stuff,’’ Jones said.
The creek where the dumping occurred, Leesburg Branch, runs into Colonel’s Creek. Colonel’s Creek then runs through the state’s Wateree River Heritage Preserve and into the Wateree River southeast of Columbia. The Wateree River merges with the Congaree River near Congaree National Park.
Much of the area above the park is filled with swamps and wildlife, but Leesburg Branch is also near some homes. A person who saw the creek dumping contacted state authorities, who videotaped the illegal discharges. Greene was charged with violating a federal pollution law.
Among the pollutants in the contaminated water were heavy metals, including cadmium, selenium, lead, chromium, nickel and mercury, the latter of which already taints rivers and creeks from Columbia to the coast. Mercury can cause nervous system disorders in people who eat fish polluted by the metal. Selenium, cadmium, nickel and chromium also are toxic to people and wildlife in sufficient amounts.
Lead is a pollutant of particular concern because it can cause brain damage in children who consume food or drink water containing even small amounts of the pollutant.
The polluted water Greene discharged came from the Northeast landfill in southeastern Richland County. The company he worked for, A&D Environmental, had a business arrangement with the landfill’s owner, Republic Services, to pick up the polluted water, known as leachate, and take it to the Florence Regional Wastewater Management Facility for disposal.
But in pleading to the federal pollution charge earlier this year, Greene said he didn’t do that because he was trying to save time.
“It was never my intent to hurt anyone or the environment,’’ Greene told the judge before he was sentenced. “I was just trying to save time.’’