South Carolina health regulators say they will use money from a statewide tire tax to clean up hundreds of thousands of scrap tires left at a Moncks Corner recycling site after the company's owner was shut down for repeated violations.
Mark Elam, chairman of the state's Department of Health and Environmental Control, made the announcement in a letter Wednesday to Gov. Henry McMaster, who on the previous day ordered the agency to remove the mess left by Viva Recycling at the site off Cypress Gardens Road.
"DHEC staff will coordinate with Berkeley County ... to facilitate cleanup and removal of the abandoned tires," Elam said in the letter."
Elam — who said the tires "pose a serious environmental and public health risk" — did not provide a timetable for the cleanup but said the agency is "committed to addressing this issue in an expeditious manner."
Abandoned tires are breeding grounds for mosquitoes that carry dangerous diseases like the West Nile and Zika viruses.
In addition to the health hazard, the tires pose a dangerous fire risk. There have been at least two fires at the Viva site in recent years. Fires at tire dumps in other parts of the country have burned for weeks, creating noxious black smoke.
Money for the cleanup will come from a $2-per-tire fee consumers pay on the purchase of new tires. No estimate is available for the total cleanup cost, but Florida environmental officials put the price tag for a similar cleanup in that state at between $3 and $4 per tire.
There are as many as 800,000 scrap tires scattered throughout the Viva Recycling grounds and in a warehouse on the property, McMaster said in a letter to the state's health agency.
DHEC currently has about $4 million available in its waste tire fund.
DHEC spokeswoman Cristi Moore said the agency will help Berkeley County develop a plan to hire a contractor to clean up the site.
"Additional details on the cleanup effort, including a draft timeline and proposed budget, will be released in coming weeks," Moore said.
Ken Gunn, the Berkeley County councilman who represents the area where Viva operated, called the tire pile "a multi-million dollar fiasco which has been dumped in our lap by the state of South Carolina."
In a Facebook message last week, Gunn said DHEC officials had not returned several calls he made to the agency asking for help with the problem.
DHEC's decision to clean up the Viva property follows last month's Post and Courier report, called "Tire Failure," that showed how lax rules and oversight left mountains of mosquito-infested tires at Viva's plant in Moncks Corner and Anderson.
The decision to use tire tax funds to pay for cleanup also reverses the health agency's previous stance of pursuing Viva and its manager, Marty Sergi, to pay the costs. DHEC obtained a nearly $1.7 million judgment against Viva earlier this year for unpaid fines related to the recycling facility. Sergi has said the company has no money to pay the fines or to clean up the site.
DHEC officials shut down Viva's recycling operations last June, nearly two years after regulators first realized the company was violating terms of its state permit.
The Post and Courier report showed how in 2013, DHEC granted the company a permit to store up to 99,000 tires at its site. The next year, the agency notified the company that it violated its permit, yet Viva continued to accept used tires, records obtained by the newspaper show.
“The cheapest way to make the most money is to bring tires in and don’t do anything with them,” Nick Bruno, a former Viva official said in the newspaper's report. "From being in the industry, I know that if you’re allowed to have 50,000 tires, you’ll have 50,000 tires on site. If you’re allowed to have 200,000, you have 200,000.”
A similar situation happened at Viva’s plant in Anderson. The company's DHEC permit allowed only 4,000 tires. DHEC later estimated that within four months, the number of tires on the Upstate lot increased to 200,000.
Elam's letter did not address cleanup of the Anderson site.
Following McMaster's letter to DHEC this week, Ken Swilling — who lives next to Viva's abandoned plant in Anderson — asked the governor not to forget what happened in his Upstate neighborhood.
"There are still people in our neighborhood sick from this mess,” he said in a letter, citing how dust particles from shredded tires have coated buildings in the area with black goo. "The real cleanup of Anderson County from open storage tires and trash needs to begin."