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A 60-foot trash pile sits in a SC recycle center. Neighbors call it a rancid health hazard.

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Firefighters walk back to their truck after talking to the owner of Able Contracting, a construction debris recycling facility, in Ridgeland on Friday, July 19, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

OKATIE — Outside this small town between Hilton Head and Beaufort, a 60-foot mountain of stinking construction debris has piled up at a recycling center, infuriating nearby residents and businesses.

The undulating mounds are impressive both in size and smell. The pile is so large that it towers over nearby telephone poles. Its contents spill across the land in waves, breaching a wall on one side where a tall and dying tree stands in the way.

During a visit to the Able Contracting site Friday, workers had stationed a large red hose near one of the peaks, and a urine-colored stream flowed down the debris-strewn slopes. The effluent babbled like a brook, but the stench was anything but bucolic, a heavy, sulfurous odor that residents say makes the area nearly uninhabitable at times.

On Friday, Able Contracting's owner, Chandler Lloyd, spoke with pride about how his operation recycles more than 75 percent of what it receives. He said he's tried hard to keep plastic and other trash from leaving the site. He takes issue with those who complain.

"I feel like a pin cushion," he said.

But neighbors and nearby businesses are fed up. They say some mornings the pile glows and fills the air with smoke, evidence that a fire burns deep. They say the state Department of Health and Environmental Control hasn't done enough to prevent the creation of what they maintain has become a monumental health and environmental hazard.

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"I think we need masks," says Carina Curiel as she talks about the smell coming from neighboring construction recycling facility Able Contracting in Ridgeland on Friday, July 19, 2019. She is worried about that quality of her well water because of its proximity to the dump. Lauren Petracca/Staff

"It's awful living here because of it," said Carina Curiel, a few homes away from the site. "We call it Mount Trashmore."

The massive mound raises questions about the definition of landfill and recycling and whether the state is too slow to prevent problems. It also comes on the heels of a scandal last year involving Viva Recycling, a tire recycler that left behind mountains of tires in Moncks Corner and Anderson, prompting a taxpayer-funded cleanup last year costing millions of dollars.

Smoke and fears

The site is off South Carolina Highway 170, in a fast-growing area of the Lowcountry, just a half-mile from the sprawling Del Webb Sun City Hilton Head development. It's one of 49 facilities in South Carolina that receive construction and demolition waste, according to DHEC's most recent roster.

The sign outside Able Contracting's office says: "We recycle construction debris" and "85 percent of this material is recycled & kept out of landfill." The mound looms a few steps behind, overflowing with foam, rubber hoses, tarps, tire treads, remnants of a portable toilet and dusty gray plastic. 

Standing in his office Friday, Chandler said his operation isn't a landfill. "It's a recycling center."

He said he's operated businesses at this property for more than 20 years, and that he began his recycling work about seven years ago. He said the facility only accepts construction debris: cardboard, concrete, metals, plastic and wood. He said workers separate concrete and metal and other recyclable materials and then shred the rest.

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Construction debris sits in a large pile at Able Contracting recycling facility in Ridgeland on Friday, July 19, 2019. File/Lauren Petracca/Staff

According to a July 2018 DHEC registration form obtained by The Post and Courier, the site had about 56,000 cubic yards on site last year. That's equivalent to about 5,600 dump truck loads. It's unclear how much debris is there now.

At one point, the pile was 100 feet tall, Chandler said. But he said he acquired a new shredder that cut its size in half. A Post and Courier drone measurement of the pile's height showed it to be about 60 feet high in spots.

In September 2018, DHEC cited the facility for failing to meet the 75-percent recycling rate required of such facilities. The issue was resolved a month later with a warning letter, a DHEC spokesman said.

Neighbors and businesses say the situation has gotten out of hand. They said smoke routinely wafts from the dump. When the smoke got too bad, they shut down their businesses.

"You don't have to be DHEC to know that something is bad here," said Jared Stromer, who runs a plumbing business nearby. He said one of his employees has to work from home because the odors are so nasty.

He said water flowing from the debris pile moves in a ditch by his property. He pointed to dead trees along the ditch and wondered aloud about whether the effluent was to blame for their brown needles.

"It can't be healthy," added Ashley Eastman, who runs a dock-building company within sight of the pile. "It smells really bad in the morning, like burnt plastic. When it's on fire, you can't breathe. And if you have allergies, it irritates them. DHEC is supposed to be looking out for our health and the environment, but they're clearly not doing it."

They and others said Lloyd is a friendly man who is quick to help neighbors, but the facility's smells and smoke trump that neighborliness. 

"It's ridiculous. It has totally changed the landscape of the neighborhood," said Teresa Forrest, comptroller of Forrest Concrete, across the street from the pile. During one smoky outbreak, she said she had to send employees home. "It's a landfill. I don't care what you call it." 

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Jared Stromer points to the large construction debris pile run by Able Contracting from the property of his plumbing business on Friday, July 19, 2019. “You don’t have to be DHEC to know that something is bad here,” he said. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Cease and desist

Fire is a lingering concern.

Until recently, the City of Hardeeville had a contract with Jasper County to cover this unincorporated area, and since 2015, the city responded 13 times, said Joey Rowell, assistant fire chief.

A major fire broke out in 2015 and took 31 hours and 1.6 million gallons to put out, The Hilton Head Island Packet reported in 2017.

Firefighters responded several times in May and June. Rowell likened the pile to a giant campfire that has died down with hot coals, though one that smells worse. "And when you agitate the debris or move it, then you have oxygen and you start seeing the fire kind of turn full circle." 

Chandler said a lightning strike likely ignited one of the fires, and that the lightning may have reached an old tree stump at the bottom of the pile, triggering a stubborn, smoldering burn. "There have been no flames."

He said his workers constantly pour water on it to prevent the smoldering from getting worse. 

On July 3, DHEC sent Lloyd a letter ordering him to stop accepting debris "due to a lingering fire." The agency also demanded that Able Contracting continue to fight the fire until it was "completely extinguished" both "internally in the pile and externally." 

But Chandler's attorney fired back letters noting that workers were saturating the pile with two 5-inch hoses that pump 6,800 gallons a minute. 

On Friday, trucks full of appliances and other debris could be seen entering the facility.

Since July 1, Jasper County has assumed jurisdiction over the pile, and two firefighters stopped by to talk with Chandler and his employees. Jasper County Fire Chief Frank Edwards said the county is monitoring the pile every day.

Meantime, frustrated neighbors said they just want to see the pile go, or at least shrink to a less threatening size.

Curiel, the resident near the site, said her mother bought the house in the 1970s, long before Chandler started taking in construction debris.

Now, the smell is so awful, she hates to go outside. She had to dismantle an above-ground pool because it was no fun to swim in the shadows of the debris. She worries about her well water and why DHEC has taken so long to address what happened. "This was beautiful land, but they destroyed it."

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Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

Tony Bartelme is senior projects reporter for The Post and Courier. He has earned national honors from the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb and National Press foundations and is a three-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Reach him at 843-937-5554 and @tbartelme