A fire that’s been burning in a Chester County landfill for almost six months is releasing hazardous chemicals into the air, and the federal government will have to step in to stop it.
Monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency has recently uncovered high levels of benzine and formaldehyde coming from the Bennett Landfill across the Broad River from the Union County town of Lockhart, two chemicals that would cause health problems if residents are exposed to their fumes long-term.
A fire has been burning underground in the landfill since November, and smoke escaping from the blaze regularly spreads over the surrounding area.
The findings were aired at a community meeting held in Lockhart last week, where officials from the EPA and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control presented the results of five months’ worth of air monitoring and took questions from residents concerned about the emissions.
Matthew Huyser, EPA on-site coordinator, said the content of the smoke emanating from the landfill has met the agency’s criteria for a “time-critical removal action.” That allows the federal agency to release federal funds – expected to exceed $1 million – needed to “isolate and enclose” the blaze once and for all.
Officials say work on sealing the site so no more hazardous smoke escapes will begin in May and will be completed within three months.
Huyser said the results are measured against the regional screening level set by the EPA office in Atlanta, which serves as the benchmark for harmful particulates. EPA and DHEC have seven air monitors between them set up around the Bennett Landfill on Pinckney Road.
“We measure what’s burning, and then we measure if the same substances are found in the community,” Huyser said.
In the months since the fire began, health officials have been monitoring for asbestos, knowing the cancer-causing substance is located in the landfill, but so far have not recorded asbestos in the air. But then a new concern arose with the discovery of the two new chemicals in the air, leading to the decision to move forward with federal intervention.
Local officials have been pushing for federal assistance since they got the blaze under control in November.
“I know people are frustrated with the time it took, but because of the size of the fix, (the EPA) had to build a good case and then present the evidence to their bosses,” said Ed Darby, the Chester County emergency planner.
Darby’s agency has been keeping track of the fire since it began, regularly reviewing the data drawn from the air monitors. Local leaders in Lockhart worry about the effects the constant exposure to the smoke are having on residents.
“This (affects) the whole town,” said Lockhart Mayor Ailene Ashe. “Even though we’re small, people love this town and they want to be able to live here, so I hope when they get this done, that won’t be a problem.”
Huyser said it “is a possibility” that the smoke has aggravated health problems in the community, especially those in what the EPA calls the “unhealthy or sensitive group” with pre-existing health problems or vulnerable respiratory systems. The agency’s monitoring showed air quality exceeded the healthy range for that group an average of 1 percent of the time within a 24-hour period.
“When you’re in the area, the odor is noticeable much of the time,” Huyser said.
Compounding the problem is the lack of information about what kind of hazardous materials may be contained within the landfill, or how it was handled.
“Because this site was mismanaged, there is a lack of covering material for the asbestos,” Huyser said. “We’re continuing to conduct a survey of the site to determine whether it contains any unacceptable waste.”
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has said the owner of the landfill has taken no action to extinguish the fire. DHEC is taking legal action to compel the owner to take responsibility for the site. A phone call to the owner of the Bennett Landfill was not returned by Wednesday evening.
U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., asked the EPA to expedite the process when constituents began to contact his office about the blaze. State Rep. Dennis Moss sent Mulvaney a photo of the smoke blanketing the area one day.
“I said, ‘Dennis, what the heck is this?’ ” Mulvaney said, “and he said, ‘this is the Lockhart dump fire.’
“We got in touch with EPA and encouraged them to take a couple more looks at it,” the Indian Land congressman said, “and they now agree with us, and Dennis, and DHEC, that it does meet the threshold for intervention.”
While EPA experts are weighing the best ways to extinguish the fire, Huyser said the agency will layer over the area with enough soil to block any oxygen that may be getting into the underground cavern where the fire is still burning, and smother it.
A secondary mission of the EPA is to manage the “significant quantity” of exposed asbestos in the landfill, which Huyser said will need to be enclosed along with the burning debris.
Despite the action by the EPA, officials at all levels stress that the smoke is not an immediate threat to the health of the people surrounding the landfill.
Ashe, Lockhart’s mayor, is concerned the town’s residents have been frightened by “overblown” reporting by some news outlets about the fire and its health effects. After a TV report aired on the fire, she received calls at town hall from people concerned about the effects of the fire.
“I love having the media involved, but they can scare people to death,” Ashe said. “People are going to have a heart attack before the toxins can do anything.”
As the project unfolds, the EPA will post public updates on the landfill fire online at epaosc.org/bennettlandfill.
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062