By Avery Wilks
Lawmakers representing the areas around Lake Marion see the Pinewood dump, a closed hazardous waste landfill located just a few hundred yards from the state’s largest reservoir, as a threat the region’s health and economy.
But perhaps just as worrisome for those lawmakers is what they don’t yet know about the aging dump and how to keep its chemicals from leaking into Lake Marion. The site faces funding concerns and could need additional protective barriers.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” said Sen. John Matthews, D-Orangeburg, who stressed the danger the dump could present to residents and businesses in several counties that rely on Lake Marion’s drinking water. “Clearly, we’re going to have to pay more attention to it.”
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control announced in January that trust fund money secured in a bankruptcy settlement may not be enough to ensure the continued safety of the landfill, which operated for more than 20 years before closing in 2000.
Charleston lawyer Ben Hagood, who oversees management of the site, said no contaminants are known to be leaking, but he anticipates South Carolina will need to spend additional money on improvements at the dump, according to a report by Sammy Fretwell of The State.
DHEC is seeking $3.9 million from the General Assembly to pay for maintenance at the Sumter County site for the coming year.
While lawmakers are receptive to allocating that money, they want more answers before settling on a long-term fix.
“The first step is for us to get accurate information about the landfill,” said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg. Hutto supports the idea of creating a “fact-finding process,” potentially in the form of public hearings or a special study committee, to bring to light Pinewood’s problems, possible solutions and the cost of those solutions.
“I don’t think we need a knee-jerk reaction. We need to be very thorough,” said Rep. Jerry Govan, D-Orangeburg. “Since it’s not the first time that this issue has come up, I think we need to be very thorough in terms of our investigation and make sure that whatever recommendation and action is taken, that it’s the right one.”
Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter, and Sen. Kevin Johnson, D-Clarendon, wrote letters on Feb. 17 to Senate leaders requesting hearings to bring the public up to speed on the dump’s problems.
McElveen said Friday that he has had discussions with those Senate leaders about his request but the details of the fact-finding process, whatever form it takes, have yet to be ironed out. He and other senators are optimistic the process will begin within the year.
“I just don’t think this is a situation that we can ignore,” said McElveen, who added that he plans to tour the Pinewood dump on April 10. “This problem has been described as a ticking time bomb, and I don’t disagree with that.”
Hutto said he believes gathering the facts should be the Senate’s first course of action, especially given that no contaminants are known to be leaking at the dump. Still, Hutto said, the state’s senators, especially those representing areas that could be affected by a polluted Lake Marion, feel a sense of urgency.
“I don’t think there’s any appetite for delay,” Hutto said. “We want to know what the accurate information is now.”
Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposed budget recommends allotting $1.5 million, $2.4 million short of DHEC’s request, to the dump’s maintenance for the coming year. A House budget committee in January agreed to provide nearly $4 million each year for maintenance.
Matthews said Haley’s figure stemmed from a “lack of understanding of the risks” at Pinewood.
“She’s making that decision without facts,” Matthews said. “What we want to do is gather the facts, then make a decision that would be appropriate to correct whatever the facts find.”
Hutto said that he doesn’t expect the Senate to lessen the House’s appropriation for Pinewood’s maintenance or for Haley to veto the amount.
“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that there’s a desire in the Senate to deal with a problem that might exist there,” he said.
Matthews said that if McElveen and Johnson’s requests for public hearings don’t pan out, he would support a resolution to create a special study committee to dive into the issue.
“I think the plan that we are now operating under is insufficient,” Matthews said. “I think the safety factors are not there.”