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Crews with Liberty Tire Recycling begin the removal of hundreds of thousands of tires left at the closed Viva Recycling plant in Moncks Corner on Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. Most of the tires have now been removed. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

The long-smoldering Able Contracting Inc. construction debris and trash heap in Okatie should have been lined to prevent any toxic runoff from contaminating groundwater. The owner should have been required to prove financial responsibility for any cleanup through a bond or insurance policy. And to protect surface water, all such operations should be required to contain all runoff on site.

That’s according to state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who, along with U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., got a firsthand look at the mess Thursday. And now that firefighters have gotten an upper hand on the blaze (and dump trucks are hauling debris to landfills), he’s rightly looking toward what good might be gleaned from the environmental, health and regulatory disaster.

South Carolina needs responsible recyclers, but as the used tire dump abandoned in Moncks Corner by Viva Recycling also demonstrated, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control needs stricter regulations, more vigorous enforcement of existing laws and better ways to hold companies financially responsible. For instance, economic incentives for any similar business should be contingent upon the company proving its fiscal ability to clean up any pollution it might create.

In Okatie, DHEC was exceedingly slow on the draw, taking about two years to resolve serious violations with a mere warning before smoke and foul odors started causing problems in June. Obviously, the agency needs to be able to take swifter corrective actions to prevent such situations from spiraling out of control.

DHEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have spent about $750,000 cleaning up the site so far, and the total cost to the public is expected to be in the $2 million to $4 million range, Mr. Davis said. The EPA is expected to stay on the job for 2-3 more weeks until the roughly 4-acre pile is reduced to a noncombustible level, then DHEC will resume hauling the rest of the debris away.

Berms and damming devices are now being used to contain further runoff. Once the trash is gone, it’s possible some soil will need to be removed.

DHEC has exhausted its emergency relief funds in Okatie, Mr. Davis said, and Myra Reece, the agency’s head of environmental affairs, has asked him and other Beaufort-area legislators to replenish that fund as soon as possible.

Despite all the bad news, including reports that polluted runoff was making its way into area waterways and allegations that Able Contracting improperly allowed portable toilets to be stored onsite, Sen. Davis said he was heartened by the combined response from DHEC, the EPA and Gov. Henry McMaster’s office, calling it a real-life “stress test.”

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“We have a lot of eyes on the ground now,” he said, but added that he remained in a “trust but verify” mode. That’s the right attitude.

The state needs lawmakers like Sen. Davis and Rep. Cunningham to take the lead on legislation capable of reining in businesses that have been operating in regulatory gray zones. And Lowcountry voters need to make their voices heard by sending a “never again” message to Columbia and Washington, D.C.

Okatie can and will recover from this black eye, which never should have happened. Hopefully, DHEC will have learned some valuable lessons, and legislators will turn those lessons into law.   

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