Okatie’s smoldering “Mount Trashmore” isn’t just an environmental disaster or a glaring example of a regulatory failing. It’s a public health hazard.
Despite federal and state environmental regulators swooping in, the trash heap is still emitting smoke — potentially deadly hydrogen cyanide was detected in the air near the Jasper County site last week — and there’s concern polluted runoff containing arsenic and magnesium could make its way into Jasper and Beaufort County waterways.
Department of Health and Environmental Control officials owe the public an explanation of how the operation was allowed to stray so far from its mission of recycling construction debris, and certainly staffers must do a better job of monitoring another 48 similarly permitted businesses.
Students returned to Okatie Elementary School on Monday as scheduled, but they weren’t allowed outside for recess due to potentially toxic smoke coming from the heap of debris that has been burning about a mile away since early June. Sensors have been placed on the school’s roof to gauge air quality, which must be of concern to parents.
Air pollution readings have been the highest in the mornings, and school officials said they plan to push back the start of the school day by two hours if harmful particulate readings spike. DHEC has been issuing daily smoke forecasts in the area.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials held an informational public meeting at the school Tuesday. They said high levels of hydrogen cyanide and another toxic chemical, acrolein, have been detected in high concentrations only in the smoke at the trash heap, not at the school.
About 25 residents near Able Contracting Inc. have self-evacuated, according to Hilton Head’s Island Packet newspaper. Though DHEC earlier called the smoking trash pile an “imminent and substantial danger,” no evacuations have been ordered. Instead, the agency advised nearby residents to stay inside to limit their exposure.
The toxic runoff, exacerbated by the firefighting effort, has been contained in a ditch and nearby pond, but Beaufort County officials have expressed concern the pollution could migrate to the Okatie and Colleton rivers over time. It’s essential that the runoff not cause more damage.
As feared, it appears likely taxpayers will be picking up the tab for the cleanup, which is expected to be substantial. In response to a July 31 emergency order to put out the fire in 72 hours, the owner told DHEC he didn’t have the resources to do it.
Additionally, at least two nearby businesses have filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against Able Contracting. The smoke, according to one of the suits, has created a “dangerous environment and damages to individuals, their health and their property interests.”
Able Contracting owner Chandler Lloyd, free on $20,000 bail for allegedly violating environmental laws, told The Post and Courier on Monday that problems at the site had been grossly mischaracterized but declined further comment.
Since Aug. 12, a contractor hired by state and federal officials has been watering down the heap and hauling debris to another disposal site. Because the site is a public health threat, federal Superfund money is helping pay for the cleanup.
Obviously, DHEC’s regulatory framework must be strengthened to prevent similar problems. Lawmakers also should demand to know how the process broke down when they reconvene in January.