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Why did they bury toxic waste by a lake?

After we posted an article from The State yesterday on our Facebook page, some folks asked us “Why did the bury toxic waste by a lake?” Sparkleberry Swamp on the northern reaches of Lake Marion seems like the last place you’d want to dump toxic waste, but that’s what happened. The story is complicated, and it starts with kitty litter. The Bennett Mineral Company operated a clay mine near Pinewood, in southern Sumter County, with the clay eventually used as kitty litter after being fired in a kiln and processed.

When Bennett finished mining the site, they were responsible for reclamation. They accepted industrial waste to help fill the hole in the ground, and in 1977 received a permit for that activity from DHEC, without public notice.

A DHEC regulator saw an opportunity to open a landfill before new federal standards took place, and bought the site from Bennett Mineral Company. He applied for a permit from DHEC to dump hazardous waste at the site, and DHEC granted the company “interim operating status,” which let them accept millions of tons of hazardous waste.

In 1989, DHEC granted a more final hazardous waste permit to Laidlaw, the next owner of the site, for operating the landfill at the site. The DHEC Board required a $135 million trust fund to pay for clean-ups.  In 1992, after intense lobbying from Laidlaw, the DHEC Board reversed its original decision, leaving only a flawed $30 million insurance policy and no trust fund.

In 1992, Sierra Club and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) appealed the DHEC permit, and in 2000 Sierra Club and SCELP prevailed. As a result of the suit, DHEC ordered the landfill to close, and Safety-Kleen–Laidlaw’s successor–declared bankruptcy. A settlement agreement between DHEC and Safety-Kleen in 2002 set up the trust and the general framework that the site continues to operate under today. A 2003 trust agreement, with Safety-Kleen as the Grantor, Kestrel Horizons as the Trustee, and DHEC as the Beneficiary, detailed the requirements for the Trustee.

Kestrel resigned in October 2014 over disagreements with DHEC over the improvements that the site needs.  To replace Kestrel, DHEC chose attorneys Ben Hagood and Robert Kerr as the interim trustees for Pinewood. DHEC has since brought on a third-party engineering firm to review funding needs at the site, and will provide recommendations on funding and capital improvements later this Year.

The latest news is that the Governor has requested less money than DHEC needs for cleaning up the site. We are looking to the General Assembly to provide oversight in this case. The State of South Carolina is on the hook for cleaning up a private company’s mess, more than a decade after they declared bankruptcy and left town. Conservation Voters of South Carolina takes from this example that we need a strong DHEC to prevent future Pinewoods. It is more prudent to have reasonable, legal permits that protect public health and the environment, while allowing businesses to flourish, than to have weak protections that leave all taxpayers–including businesses–responsible for cleaning up the mess of a bad actor.

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picture of sign to Pinewood


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