Fish kill blamed on runoff from St. George fire

St. George fire chief Malcolm Burns climbs through the rubble of the Premiere Environmental Services building.

ST. GEORGE — State inspectors found no evidence that Sunday's recycling plant fire hurt humans, but it was deadly to nearby fish.

Caustic runoff from water sprayed on the fire at Premier Environmental Services killed fish in Gum Branch Creek, Department of Natural Resources biologist Scott Lamprecht said Tuesday. Lamprecht found fish that had been dead about a day in the creek near the plant.

"They're definitely from this event, no doubt," he said.

Lamprecht was still counting the extent of the kill Tuesday afternoon. He said hundreds of fish could have died. More would have been killed if recent drought conditions had not reduced water levels, he said. Dead fish included spotted sunfish, largemouth bass, red-finned pickerel, stream chubsuckers and yellow bullheads. Lamprecht also found a dead snapping turtle.

The creek leads into Indian Field Swamp, which leads into the Edisto River, he said. There was no evidence of damage in the swamp, and it appeared the contaminants only reached about a mile and a half downstream, he said.

The fish likely were killed by high pH levels Sunday, before water coming off the burned building was contained, he said.

The building caught fire late Saturday night or early Sunday morning. About 60 firefighters from a dozen departments fought the blaze. A truck sprayed tens of thousands of gallons of water on the fire Sunday and resumed spraying smoldering bales of compressed paper and plastic Monday. It was still spraying hot spots Tuesday.

Owner Matt Brownlee brought in equipment to contain the water Sunday. Workers built trenches and plywood barriers and vacuumed up the water into three 10,000-gallon holding tanks, which will be hauled off for treatment.

"I'm doing the right thing," said Brownlee, a former town councilman who opened the plant about three years ago. "It may take everything I ever earned all my life to take care of this. We were proactive. We put up dikes and berms before DHEC ever got here. I haven't slept at all in three days. But this is my town."

A team from the Department of Health and Environmental Control found that pH levels in water from the fire were twice as high as normal, which is typically harmful to fish, DHEC public information officer Thom Berry said. It's likely the contamination came from sodium hydroxide stored in the plant, Berry said.

The plant compressed used paper and plastic into bales that were burned in cement plants. The sodium hydroxide likely came from a cleaning product, Brownlee said.

DHEC will investigate whether it was stored properly, which is standard procedure, Berry said.

A DHEC team found no air contaminants from the smoke, Berry said, and they took down the sensors Tuesday afternoon.