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Contracting crews clean up a massive debris pile left by Able Contracting near Bluffton on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. The emergency cleanup has been underway for more than a month now. Lauren Petracca/Staff

OKATIE — Bite by bite, four excavators crawled over the "Mount Trashmore" near Bluffton, scooping up mounds of stinking debris and dumping them into trucks — a cleanup that's expected to cost $4.5 million in public funds.

The cleanup at the Able Contracting site has been underway for more than a month, and the undulating hills of construction debris have shrunk a bit. But the dumping ground remains a staggering, foul-smelling eyesore.

On Wednesday, a chimney of smoke rose from one of the mound's folds, and the air carried an acrid smell reminiscent of burned and rotten eggs.

Fires have been burning deep inside the pile for months, and excavators dug deep into the dark mass of decomposing debris to snuff them out. When operators lifted the machines' claws, sheets of plastic and pipes hung like mouths stuffed with dirty spaghetti.

So far, roughly 700 truckloads have been sent from the site to a properly permitted landfill, said Terry Tanner, on-scene coordinator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

But much more work needs to be done. All told, the site contains about 117,000 cubic yards of construction and demolition debris, enough to fill 9,000 more dump trucks.

The EPA will remove only enough to make sure a lingering fire in the pile's bowels is out. Then it's up to the state Department of Environmental Control to finish the job. This is expected to take months, the latest DHEC estimates show.

In the meantime, local and federal officials evacuated about two-dozen nearby residents to a hotel. Tests of groundwater showed some wells had been contaminated. People around the site are furious and frustrated.

Many had complained for years about the growing pile and, like the stomach-turning stench around the site, their questions still linger in the air: How did the state let this happen? Are there ways to prevent this from happening in the future? 

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Emergency cleanup crews paid for by the EPA haul off waste from a debris pile left by Able Contracting near Bluffton on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. So far, the crews have hauled off 6,000 tons, or about 700 truckloads, from the 117,000 cubic yards of debris. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Stepping up scrutiny

The Able Contracting pile sits at the end of a road between Bluffton and Beaufort. Once rural, the area is now home to sprawling subdivisions, such as Del Webb's Sun City Hilton Head, less than a mile away.

Able Contracting's owner, Chandler Lloyd, is a burly man who drove monster trucks in the 1980s and 1990s and later organized monster truck events.

Lloyd declined to comment for this report, but during an interview in July he told The Post and Courier he'd begun taking in construction materials about seven years ago.

Since then, he felt neighbors had unfairly complained about his operation. He said he'd long complied with DHEC rules and that the pile wasn't a landfill. "It's a recycling center."

His statements in July were in stark contrast to the giant debris pile steps away from his office, a pile so large that some of it had breached a retaining wall and spilled near the office's back door. That day, his workers had draped hoses across a peak to keep the fire back, creating urine-colored streams that flowed down the debris toward ditches.

After the newspaper's report, DHEC and the EPA stepped up their scrutiny, eventually shutting the operation down and beginning a publicly funded cleanup.

A review of hundreds of DHEC documents show the mess had been long in the making.

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A worker with the Environmental Protection Agency checks an air monitor as emergency cleanup crews clear a debris pile left by Able Contracting near Bluffton on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

'Off my property'

Residents had complained to DHEC about the site as far back as 2013, according to those records, which DHEC provided in response to a request under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

The 2013 complaint prompted a visit by a DHEC official, who noted that Able Contracting was operating a recycling facility.

The official told Lloyd that, under state rules, such facilities were required to remove or recycle 75 percent of the materials it brought in. The regulation was designed to prevent debris from piling up and turning sites into de facto landfills.

Lloyd responded to that DHEC visit with a letter: “I have dealt with people in authoritative positions in the past and they wanted to show us they’re authority, even when they realized they had crossed the line. Enough said …”

Lloyd wrote the facility’s goal was to recycle 85 to 95 percent of the materials hauled to the site. He mentioned that he'd donated shingles and wood to needy families. “As you have seen, I believe we have been extremely neat for an operation such as ours. … We are professional and also good neighbors.”

Relations went downhill after that.

Time and again, neighbors complained to DHEC about the odors and fires. Typical of these complaints was one in 2014 when a resident said he was concerned about air and water pollution from the pile.

After a DHEC visit, an official wrote that the plant seemed to be operating in an acceptable manner. “No further action required.”

But complaints continued to pile up like the plastic and concrete in the pile. Residents began calling the pile "Mount Trashmore." One told DHEC that “taxpayers will end up cleaning up the site.”

Time and again, DHEC inspectors visited the site. They noted the growing pile and wrote “no further action necessary.”

Then, in 2016, DHEC discovered that Lloyd had land in Hampton County. “He needs more space to store his recycled materials,” a memo said. 

But a DHEC inspection that year revealed fill from the Able Contracting site was contaminated with trash. DHEC told Lloyd it wasn't suitable for fill. Lloyd fired off an angry response, complaining that DHEC had no right stop him from hauling “my dirt to my property.”

In a March 16, 2016, letter, Lloyd wrote DHEC: “It is really a shame how you and your department have non-stop harassed and worked against us, rather than help us and guide us. We are providing good jobs, helping the environment, helping people (in) the community, and above all not breaking the law.”

Tensions had grown so bad that when a DHEC official arrived unannounced in 2017, Lloyd told the official the inspection "is not going to happen" and to "get off the property." The pile continued to grow.

At the time, DHEC was hamstrung, in part, by weak state regulations.

Operators of construction and debris sites could meet the agency's 75 percent reuse rule by recycling concrete, which weighed more than other materials.

In effect, a facility could recycle smaller amounts of heavy concrete and claim it had recycled 75 percent by weight, as if putting a thumb on a scale. That meant other, lighter materials would remain on site, piling up.

An investigation in 2017 by the Hilton Head Island Packet exposed the loophole and the state's failure to close it. And, lawmakers responded in 2018, passing legislation that required construction and debris sites to get more stringent permits.

Able Contracting applied but never received its permit.

Then the fires began to break out.

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Zarahy Castillo washes her hands while using bottled water to make dinner to take to a hotel where she is staying with her husband and kids on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. The family, whose water is no longer safe for cooking or drinking after being contaminated by Able Contracting, was evacuated from their home by the EPA. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Lightning strikes

During the summer of 2018, a particularly bad fire spewed a nasty brew into the air. Lloyd attributed the fire to a lightning strike. 

By then, the pile was nearly 90-feet high, stuffed with decomposing materials that produced methane gas, a potent fuel source. The fire continued for months, with nearby resident saying it was often worse in the mornings when smoke hung heavy.

More smoldering fires broke out this past June and July. After The Post and Courier and other media reports in July, DHEC ordered Able Contracting to submit a plan to snuff out the fire for good. But it blew past that deadline, and Able's lawyer eventually told DHEC the company didn't have the money to comply. The EPA took over the cleanup, using money from its Superfund accounts.

By August, Jasper County had issued an emergency order for residents to evacuate, including Zarahy Castillo, who lives in a trailer with her husband, Wilson Ramires, and their children. 

On Wednesday, she said the EPA had paid for them to relocate to a nearby motel, and that the agency had tested their well water and found it contaminated. She said she worried that her children had been harmed by the air and foul water. One had been vomiting and coughing for some time. 

She added that her family had moved to the trailer about a year ago. They're from Honduras, she said, adding that several other families in the area are from Latin America. Asked if she had complained to DHEC, she said in Spanish, "We did not complain because we don't speak English."

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Mike Duncan, who is renting a home near Able Contracting's debris pile, talks about how he has been staying in a hotel room paid for by the EPA for the past six weeks due to air contamination by the dump on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Across the street, Mike Duncan, said he'd lived in the neighborhood for about 11 years. He works for Osprey Village, a nonprofit that hopes to build housing for disabled adults. He's also living at a motel. He'd just stopped by the house for a moment.

"We like living here," he said. "We just want it cleaned up."

Moments later, state Sen. Tom Davis stopped by the entrance to the Able Contracting site.

Davis, R-Beaufort, spearheaded a joint resolution to help DHEC pay for the site's cleanup once EPA leaves.

"The good news is that when EPA relinquishes the site in two or three weeks, DHEC has agreed to take it over. It should be a seamless handoff," he said.

The agency has calculated that it will cost about $4.5 million to remove all 117,000 cubic yards of debris.

So far, Davis said, DHEC has the funds on hand to do this, but he said lawmakers will need to act quickly to replenish the agency's coffers. The joint resolution calls for the S.C attorney general and DHEC to investigate how taxpayers can recoup funds spent to clean up Able's mess. He also lauded Gov. Henry McMaster for making the cleanup a priority.

"A month ago, the idea that DHEC would spend money to reduce the pile wasn't even on the horizon," said Davis.

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Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, talks about how Able Contracting's debris pile grew so large on Wednesday, September 11, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

As the September sun baked the pile behind him, Davis said the focus first should be on removing the debris so it doesn't pollute the air and area's waterways.

The next task, he added, is to ask what lessons can be learned and how state agencies can be more responsive.

Those questions also should be priorities, neighbors and activists say.

DHEC is underfunded and stuck with weak regulations, said Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah River Waterkeeper, which is testing water in the area for contamination. "They've not been able to enforce the regulations they already have. It's unforgivable how" the agency hasn't been "given the teeth to do anything. Hopefully, it's a wake-up call."

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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

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