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LANDFILL FIRE FALLOUT: Smoke-weary SC town feels abandoned (+ video)

Tammy Moody, 54, a lifelong Lockhart resident, says she has developed breathing problems that she attributes to the Bennett Landfill fire.
Tammy Moody, 54, a lifelong Lockhart resident, says she has developed breathing problems that she attributes to the Bennett Landfill fire. gmelendez@thestate.com

Donna Ray was working in the kitchen at her community store one day when, to her horror, blood began to pour from her nose.

She ran to the bathroom, stopped the bleeding and returned to work. But the incident worried Ray.

A fire had been smoldering for months at a landfill nearby, sending a haze of smoke over Lockhart and the surrounding community. And as smoke clouded the air during the winter and spring, workers at the store were suffering nosebleeds, headaches and coughing spells, she said.

“Every last one of us, when we were here, we’d have nose bleeds – but we wouldn’t have them at home,” said the 48-year-old Ray, who suspects her ailments were related to the smoke. “It was scary.”

Today, with the smoke finally clearing as a result of a recent federal cleanup effort, Ray and other Lockhart-area residents are ecstatic.

But they’re also irked that it took government agencies more than six months to extinguish the fire at Bennett’s Landfill, a privately owned construction and demolition dump about 75 miles up the Broad River from Columbia.

Some locals say they’re the innocent victims of a poorly run landfill and slow government responses that placed them at unnecessary risk. They can’t help but wonder if exposure to the smoky haze will one day make them sick – if it hasn’t already.

“All of us feel like we’ve been let down, we’ve been neglected and forgotten about,” said 54-year-old Tammy Moody as she worked in her yard last week.

“This is a little town of elderly and retired people. Most people couldn’t just move or go to a safe zone until this was cleared up.”

The fire, the cause of which still has not been pinpointed, was first reported Nov. 2 and declared extinguished five days later. But it flared up again in late December and smoldered until U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors put it out last week. They arrived on the scene at the end of May after months of EPA research.

Officials with both the EPA and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control say they moved as quickly as they could to address the smoldering landfill, but money was tight and the smoke did not appear to be an immediate threat to community health.

DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said the agency “does not have equipment, technical expertise or manpower dedicated to fighting fires.” Harris said that DHEC’s emergency cleanup fund, at $250,000, is insufficient to pay for firefighting and cleanup at the Bennett Landfill. The landfill fire site could cost $2 million to stabilize, she said.

Because of those challenges, the EPA’s Matt Huyser said DHEC asked his agency in January to evaluate the situation to see if it warranted federal spending. But the evaluation process can take up to a year as air samples are collected and other studies are conducted.

“If we had encountered something that warranted an emergency response, we would have done it,” said Huyser, the agency’s on-scene cleanup coordinator for the Bennett Landfill.

Instead, the agency worked from January through April monitoring the air for soot particles and toxic materials. Its air pollution tests ultimately revealed levels of 13 toxins in the landfill smoke and two toxins – benzene and formaldehyde – in the air of Lockhart.

The levels proved high enough to justify the federal government spending more than $1 million to extinguish the landfill fire. On April 30, the EPA approved money to put out the blaze and stabilize an eroding asbestos disposal area at the landfill in Chester County, just across the Broad River from Union County and the town of Lockhart.

Now, the EPA is sharing the data it has collected with another federal department, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, for a health study that could answer lingering community questions about how the smoke has affected people’s health.

The agency has urged people to see a doctor if they have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema, which can be worsened by breathing bad air. Nosebleeds have been tied to smoke inhalation from cigarettes, forest fires and other sources.

Ed Darby, deputy director of emergency management for Chester County, said the expertise and the resources of the EPA and DHEC were vital to stopping the fire.

His county didn’t have the money to go after the fire once it rekindled – nor are Chester firefighters experts in battling landfill blazes, he said. That was evident when county efforts in November, which cost $20,000, didn’t extinguish the fire, he said.

“The federal government, it moves like a 50-ton elephant, but it eventually gets where it is going and crushes what it is supposed to crush,” he said. “That’s the way you have to look at it.”

Skeptical Lockhart

Once a thriving mill town, Lockhart today is an eerily quiet place inhabited by an aging population.

It has about 500 residents and a handful of businesses.

People live in mobile homes or old mill houses that, in many cases, need repair. Many live below the poverty level and have little political clout. The textile mill that employed so many people closed more than 20 years ago.

That’s why some folks say it was initially hard to get the attention of DHEC, the EPA and other agencies. Also, because Lockhart is not in the same county as the landfill, it initially took time to get the full attention of government agencies, Mayor Ailene Ashe said.

Ashe said she wrote some of the state’s legislative leaders as well as Gov. Nikki Haley about the problem.

“You would not believe all that I have done trying to get some help before we finally got DHEC and the EPA,” Ashe said.

But after the two agencies got involved again in early January, they worked closely with Lockhart to address the smoke problem, she said. They’ve installed air pollution monitors, held community meetings and been available to answer questions, Ashe said. She’s generally pleased with the response.

Moody, who lives near the top of Lockhart’s historic mill hill, remains skeptical.

Too many people have suffered health problems after breathing the smoke, she and other townspeople interviewed last week by The State newspaper said. The fire should have been stopped long ago, they said.

“We’ve got to breathe this. Our kids have to breathe this,” Moody said. “Who knows how far down the line we’re going to be sick or what kind of health issues we are going to develop further in our life because of that smoke?”

In Moody’s case, a walk along the slopes of this old mill village is almost impossible without an inhaler because the smoke made her bronchitis worse, she said. Medicine and extra equipment to cleanse the smoke-tinged air inside her home has cost Moody more than $1,000 out of pocket, she said.

Ray, the cook at the Broad River Mart, said her medical problems are also a financial concern. The store is the closest business to the landfill.

“Who do we hold accountable for our medical bills?” Ray asked.

Residents of Lockhart and employees at the store where Ray works described the smoke, at its peak, as thick and acrid.

It would blanket the area many mornings, creating a hazy fog that made seeing difficult. The smoke got so bad at one point that workers at the Broad River Mart stuffed towels below doors and taped up openings that could allow smoke to get inside.

“At its worst, we couldn’t see because smoke was inside the store,” said 60-year-old Kay Hoag, who works with Ray at the Broad River Mart. “It was black. You couldn’t see what was in front of you. You couldn’t see the lights from our store sometimes.”

Downtown, at the Lockhart Cafe, which bills itself as “Home of the Broad River Burger,” owner Bernice Canupp and several customers said the smoke was the worst thing they’ve seen in Lockhart in years. Some community residents said it rivals the loss of the old Lockhart High School to a fire more than a half-century ago.

“It was the smell,” Canupp, 49, said of the landfill smoke. “Early in the morning and late in the evening, you couldn’t go outside. It (was) that bad. On a cloudy day, it was worser.

“I’m still smelling it, and I know ain’t nobody around me burning wood. There were so many people around here who had so many health problems. Thank God I ain’t got none – yet.”

Who’s responsible

EPA officials say the Bennett Landfill fire isn’t the kind of issue they deal with routinely – and it presented more problems than initially expected.

When the fire was reported in November 2014, the EPA responded with an emergency team to assist local firefighters. Spraying water on the flames, firefighters knocked the blaze down and declared it contained within five days of arriving, according to the EPA and DHEC.

Unfortunately, the landfill was smoking again by January and people were beginning to notice. EPA officials now say that, because some of the waste in the landfill was not covered well enough with dirt, oxygen got into the pile and the fire somehow reignited.

The EPA’s Perry Gaughn said it’s possible that the presence of Styrofoam may have helped keep the landfill smoldering because Styrofoam can smoke for long periods once ignited. Fiberglass also was a problem, the county’s Darby said.

The EPA’s plan now is to dump a thick cover of soil atop the landfill and create a cap so that it won’t be exposed to air in the future. The department is doing the same to an area of the landfill that contained asbestos, a cancer-causing material that was found uncovered and eroding, separately from the fire, when the EPA arrived on the scene.

Building the cap should take about three months. But the good news is that the landfill fire is all but dead, Gaughn, an EPA Superfund official who works with Huyser, said Thursday.

Meanwhile, as work continues to stabilize the landfill, Lockhart residents are asking whether the dump’s former operator will be punished and held accountable.

Ronald Ray Olsen, a Charlotte-area businessman, faces a criminal charge of violating South Carolina’s solid waste management law at the Bennett landfill. DHEC says he withdrew $100,000 in state-required cleanup money from a financial institution. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Donna Allen, a grandmother of seven who worked at Olsen’s landfill before she was fired recently, said she had increasing concerns about the way the site was being operated in recent years.

Allen, 56, agreed with others that the federal and state cleanup efforts should have moved more quickly to protect people’s health. She has developed a persistent cough and sore throat, and suffered an increasing number of headaches, she said.

“It’s the worst thing,” said Allen, who grew up in Lockhart. “We couldn’t avoid this smoke. The two chemicals, benzene and formaldehyde, are very harmful. This is something that should have been addressed earlier.”

Government officials “may have had to do what they had to do. But the town has really suffered.”

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