County seeks study for mill cleanup

GREAT FALLS -- Chester County leaders decided this week to apply for a federal grant to pay for an environmental study at a Great Falls mill where an oil leak in 2003 cost the county more than $1 million.

County Councilman Alex Oliphant suggested the county pay for an examination that checks for things such as asbestos and lead-based paint. It's the same study Oliphant and other local leaders are trying to have conducted on two blighted properties in a part of town called the gateway.

Oliphant said the study for the old mill site could cost $6,000 to $7,000.

The council agreed Monday to seek bids for the tests, and County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey said the county began the process this week of applying for a federal grant to pay for the studies.

The mill site has been a headache for officials in recent years.

On Feb. 5, 2003, Great Falls Sewer District employees discovered an oil leak at the mill. A film of oil covered the creek that fed into the containment area of the local wastewater treatment plant. The employees followed the path along the creek about a mile upstream and found the source of the leak at the abandoned mill site.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials said in 2005 that the county did not report the oil spill in a timely manner, nor did it have a response plan in place to comply with the national Clean Water Act. That same year, the county received a letter from the U.S. Coast Guard's National Pollution Funds Center denying its claim for the $1.3 million cleanup cost, saying the county never inspected the tank and took no precautions.

Former County Manager Avery Frick told The Herald in 2005 that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control was contacted, and that office notified the National Response Center.

Above-ground tank

The fuel oil from a 60,000-gallon above-ground tank was cleaned up by DHEC and a Columbia-based industrial cleanup crew on the same day the spill was discovered, Frick said then. The oil tank was pumped empty.

The plant was not in operation, no one was injured by the spill and no oil leaked into the nearby Catawba River.

The county acquired the mill by default, officials said. The former owners of the mill did not pay property taxes, and the mill was sold to the county's Forfeited Land Commission at a 1998 tax sale auction. The county bid on the property for the amount of the taxes due. No one else bid.

The plant was closed at the time of the sale, and local officials relied on the previous owners' statement that the tanks were empty.

County liability is one reason why the tests should be done, Oliphant said. If testing had taken place, the effort might have saved the county the cleanup cost, he said.

Although at least one potential buyer has expressed interest in the property, Oliphant said he hopes the mill site won't be sold until it's cleared.

"That property has one good use -- a bulldozer," he said.

Traditionally, Oliphant said the county has sold properties in its Forfeited Land Commission for back taxes. But officials like him and Roddey are tired of people salvaging what they want from land and not cleaning up the site.

"That's why we're in the mess we're in right now," Roddey said.

"We need to quit taking bad property and reselling," Oliphant said.

Oliphant also said "it would take a fortune" to renovate the facility because of environmental problems such as mold, asbestos and lead-based paint.

"We're not turning our backs on this stuff or running away," Roddey said. "We just want to do it in a proper way."