Tales of DHEC at work
BY BRETT BURSEY
Dirty Air"If we don't burn, we don't earn." For years that was the company motto at ThermalKEM, a hazardous waste incinerator outside of Rock Hill.
When a former employee blew the whistle on the plant, it confirmed the community's worst fears. The owners were intentionally overfeeding the incinerator and routinely "fixing" paperwork to cover up toxic releases.
Like many of South Carolina's major toxic industries, the company started as a Mom-and-Pop operation. It originally recycled paint, using an incinerator that an official from the environmental protection agency said looked like an overgrown garage heater.
The facility was sold, along with its "provisional status permit," to a British firm, which built a large industrial incinerator. That facility was sold in 1986 to the German company NuKEM, which created TermalKEM to run the incinerator.
ThermalKEM was inspected by the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) once a year, by scheduled appointment. After the EPA cracked down on the plant in 1990, DHEC issued ThermalKEM a $90,000 fine for overfeeding the incinerator and excessive emergency releases.
In 1994, ThermalKEM's permit allowed it to burn 14.5 million pounds of toxic waste. That year the company was permitted to release into the air more than 183,000 pounds of lead; 8,000 pounds of arsenic; 5,000 pounds of mercury and 230,000 pounds of chromium.
In 1995, as DHEC was holding hearings on ThermalKEM, a fire at the plant released 200,000 pounds of untreated toxins into the environment.
With a backlog of civil cases and possible criminal cases looming, ThermalKEM sold the plant in 1996.
In spite of repeated allegations of criminal activity at the plant, DHEC never conducted a background check on ThermalKEM or its parent company, NuKEM. If they had, the agency would have known that in 1988 the German government charged NuKEM with taking more than $10 million in bribes and payoffs for illegal shipments of weapons grade nuclear material to Pakistan and Libya.
The investigation ended without convictions after the NuKEM executive in charge of shipping nuclear materials committed suicide in jail.
DHEC still does not check past environmental compliance records of companies applying for pollution permits to operate in South Carolina.
Dirty SoilThe hazardous waste dump in Sumter County is a case study in how, under DHEC's watch, South Carolina has turned into the nation's garbage dump. Laidlaw Hazardous Waste Landfill, now operating as Safety Kleen in Pinewood, began life as a kitty liter mine in 1977, when the company's owner applied to DHEC for a permit to dispose of industrial waste.
DHEC issued a permit that allowed Laidlaw to dump hazardous waste into an unlined hole in the ground. "They literally backed tankers up to the pit and dumped it," said environmental attorney Bob Guild. "A bulldozer would push the slop around until the kitty litter soaked most of it up."
In 1978, Bennett sold the hole in the ground to SCA Services, the world's second-largest waste company. "They were searching nationwide for a site to open a major hazardous waste facility," Guild said. "The main attribute of the site wasn't its suitability but the existing permit that could be transferred to the new owner."
SCA knew how to work the system. It hired Bill Stillwell, DHEC's manager of hazardous waste, to set up its South Carolina operation. Stillwell had granted the dump's first permit, and four days after he left DHEC to work for SCA his predecessor, Hartsill Truesdale, transferred the permit to Stillwell's new company. Truesdale is still chief of DHEC's bureau of hazardous waste.
SCA, and the companies that followed it, turned the pit into one of the nation's largest hazardous waste dumps using nothing more than a provisional permit. The dump sits a few hundred yards from Lake Marion, the source of drinking water for much of coastal South Carolina.
"With slick lawyers who appealed every decision, a regulatory agency that deferred to industry, and friends in the legislature, this company managed to keep operating at full steam, dumping up to 365,000 tons of waste a year for 14 years without a formal permit," Guild said
In 1992, the DHEC board, ignoring internal studies and its own staff, allowed Laidlaw to operate without posting a $133 million cash bond. After private meetings with the company, DHEC agreed to allow Laidlaw to give a simple corporate guarantee instead of making payments to a trust fund to cover estimated costs of cleaning up future leaks.
To date, the landfill contains nearly 3 million tons of toxic, ignitable, reactive and corrosive wastes. The company now buries about 500 tons of waste each day.
"If we're lucky, there won't be a major accident before the plant is closed," Guild said, "but the landfill will leak, ultimately, and contaminate Lake Marion. The bottom line is will it be the citizens who pay for cleaning up or the people who made the profit?"
Dirty WaterIn a move that outraged senators in the Lowcountry last legislative session, DHEC passed a regulation that lowered water quality standards for South Carolina rivers.
The change in rules came after a six-year, $5 million "Harbor Project" study that concluded the Cooper River was at its maximum permitted level for industrial discharges. Rather than follow the recommendations of the study, which DHEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) paid for, DHEC passed a regulation that would allow industries to skirt state standards.
DHEC is now awaiting results of a new study, commissioned by the Cooper River Water Users' Association, a group that represents business interests.
"I've never seen a more expensive and extensive lobbying effort... as we saw last year by Cooper River industries," said Sen. Arthur Ravenel (R-Charleston). "When you get right down to it, rather than clean up the river, [DHEC] lowered the standards."
At a recent Senate hearing on a bill to overturn the regulation, a DHEC spokesperson testified, "We don't feel that we reduced the standards. We gave industry the opportunity to vary up to 10 percent without reducing water quality."
The argument DHEC officials make is that if an industry can prove discharges exceeding standards won't cause harm, then there is no reduction in water quality.
"It seems to me," said Sen. Glenn McConnell (R-Charleston), "that our policy should be cleaner water rather than how far we can stretch our rivers' capacity to tolerate pollution."
The bill to overturn DHEC's 10 percent variance for polluting industries will go up for a vote this session.
Dirty TricksWhen Laid-law bought ABCO Industries in 1986, the small chemical plant outside of Spartanburg had already been drawing the ire of local citizens for foul smells and dead fish in the North Tyger River.
Laidlaw received a permit from DHEC to turn the plant's incinerator into one of 18 in the nation licensed to burn liquid hazardous waste.
After years of residents complaints to DHEC, the environmental groups Sierra Club, CLEAN and Friends of the Earth filed suit against Laidlaw/TOC Hazardous Waste Incinerator in federal court.
Laidlaw's own records showed 1,044 water quality permit violations over a six-year period, mostly for dumping too much mercury into the North Tyger.
In spite of the repeated violations, DHEC never took Laidlaw to court -- until the company begged the agency to do so. Laidlaw convinced DHEC to file and settle a suit against the company to head off the citizens' case.
Laidlaw attorneys in the McNair Law Firm wrote a lawsuit against themselves and agreed to pay a $100,000 fine to settle the case. All DHEC had to do was sign the papers.
The citizens' lawsuit argued that Laidlaw should face a $2 million fine for repeated water quality violations rather than the $100,000 DHEC settled for.
In March the U.S. Supreme Court said it would hear the citizens' arguments.
Dirty LegacyHarry Martin repeatedly called DHEC in the mid 1980s to report that the industrial facility next door to his home in north Columbia was illegally dumping hazardous waste on its property.
DHEC never responded to Martin's calls.
"Then people started dying," Martin's wife, Joyce, said. "We just noticed all of a sudden that there were a lot more deaths and illnesses in this small community than was the norm."
In the spring of 1990, DHEC began testing wells in the area surrounding Diamont Boart, a Belgian-owned company that makes industrial tools. Thirty-three wells were found to contain levels of industrial solvents that are probable carcinogens. Thirteen wells did not meet EPA standards. The Martin's well was among the most polluted.
Martin died of pancreatic cancer in 1992, two weeks after his next-door neighbor, who had the same disease, committed suicide. Before he died, Martin filed a civil suit against Diamont Boart.
"Harry made me promise," Martin's wife said. "He said, `Honey, whatever you do, you follow through with this lawsuit.'"
When Diamont Boart set up a 240-employee shop in the working-class neighborhood in 1976, company officials told DHEC they didn't need an industrial discharge permit because they would treat all their water on site. The only DHEC permit the company had was for a septic tank for its toilets.
For more than a decade, DHEC never checked to see where the 8.5 million gallons of water the company was buying from the city each year was winding up.
DHEC never inspected the company, although during the Martin's lawsuit it was discovered that DHEC wrote Diamont Board in 1982 and twice in 1986 reminding the company it didn't have a discharge permit.
In 1990, DHEC fined Diamont Boart $4,000 for operating without a permit for 13 years. The illegal dumping had gone on for so long that a DHEC map of the site listed the stream of hazardous waste coming from the plant as an "unnamed tributary of Spears Creek."
During the Martin trial former employees of Diamont Boart acknowledged that it was company policy to dump hazardous waste in the sandy ground behind the plant. Lawyers for the Martin family determined that the company saved $50 million by dumping waste illegally.
The jury could not determine that Harry Martin's cancer was caused by the company's chemicals in his well. They did, however, find the company guilty of trespass and property damage, and awarded Joyce Martin $1 million in punitive damages.
"Harry knew they had killed him just as sure as if they had walked in the back door and shot him," Joyce Martin