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A truck drives by a construction debris recycling facility run by Able Contracting in Ridgeland on Friday, July 19, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

State and local officials have taken control of Okatie’s smoldering “Mount Trashmore,” and its operators face a bevy of charges for allegedly letting the recycling operation morph into what is by all appearances a de facto landfill.

Which leads to an important question: What took so long?

Able Contracting Inc. registered its construction materials recycling business with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2014, promising to recycle 75 percent of what was taken in. But according to a Jasper County indictment, it started allowing “inappropriate construction and demolition debris” onto the site without the proper permits as early as January 2015. The company wasn’t formally cited until 2018, and then the matter was dismissed with a warning.

It shouldn’t have taken complaints from neighbors in the decidedly industrial pocket off S.C. Highway 170, along with the attention drawn to the situation by Post and Courier reporter Tony Bartelme, to spur state and local officials to action.

After all, it is a roughly 600-by-300-foot lot piled as much as 60 feet high with smoldering trash, with runoff from rain and firefighting efforts draining into a nearby pond. Fires have been an off-and-on problem since a major blaze in 2015.

Not surprisingly, recent water and air samples in the area showed high bacteria counts and particulate pollution several times the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers hazardous.

It’s unclear why authorities didn’t take action against Able Contracting sooner; it’s been abundantly clear for a while now that something was amiss. In addition to being accused of accepting inappropriate debris, the operators also are accused of conspiring to violate environmental regulations.

This appears to be yet another regulatory failure along the lines of the Viva Recycling facility in Moncks Corner where more than 1 million old tires were allowed to pile up and create a public health and safety threat before the state finally stepped in. In that case, the cleanup ended up having to be funded at public expense.

Obviously, state regulators need to be more proactive in monitoring heavy industrial operations with the potential to create large and costly public nuisances.

Permitting requirements did change between 2014 and 2018 at the Okatie recycling site, but the fires, the stench and the growing size of the operation should have raised concerns sooner.

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As Jared Stromer, who runs a nearby plumbing business, told Mr. Bartelme, “You don’t have to be DHEC to know that something is bad here.”

On the contrary, DHEC seems to have been among the last to find out.

So far, it’s unclear what will become of Mount Trashmore, or if the owner has the means to pay for the cleanup, but relying on state funding to deal with the mess should be a last resort.

Jasper County officials recently declared a local emergency and issued a voluntary evacuation order for nearby residents, citing threats to their health and the environment, according to WTOC-TV. The facility’s owners should be held responsible for these costs as well.

The problems in Okatie must prompt DHEC staffers to visit the 48 other similarly permitted sites in South Carolina to make sure regulations are being followed. We need responsible recyclers. We don’t need smoldering trash hills.

And permitting agencies need to do a better job of ensuring recyclers and other potentially problematic industries are operating within state law.

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