South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

South Carolina Hazardous Waste War
Posted: December 6, 2017

The summary in our closed case docket tells you how, after over six years of legal battles, ThermalKEM finally gave up efforts to permit its incinerator expansion and closed its operation in 1995. ThermalKEM had burned toxic waste in Rock Hill for years, but the toxic legacy of this site goes much farther back and is still with us today. The whole story of this site is worth reading as a cautionary tale of what happens, across multiple generations, when government and elected officials are not doing their job and the public interest is sacrificed to the short-term benefits of a few private parties.

It would be tempting to label the whole story as an isolated aberration, but unfortunately this is just one of the many instances of the frontal war waged by the hazardous waste industry and its acolytes against South Carolina. Shortly after founding SCELP, Jimmy Chandler found himself fighting this war on multiple fronts and you can get a sense of the scope of the challenge in two of the earliest newsletters published in 1989 and 1991, linked to at the bottom of this page. By the beginning of the new millennium, SCELP and its allies had won on all fronts, but the toxic legacy of decades of mismanagement and abuse of our natural resources will be with us for many more decades, especially if we do not reverse the trend of defunding and delaying so many clean-up efforts.

To help us better learn from the past, a fascinating account of the toxic site where ThermalKEM would run the incinerator for many years was written in 1995 by Brett Bursey on POINT, a pioneering newsletter in the very early days of the Internet. You can read it all here, but we also wanted to highlight a few passages below.

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"In the early 1970s, Walter and Peggy Neal bought 45 acres near Rock Hill and opened a solvent recycling business. Neal planned to distill old paint and solvents to recover usable chemicals and burn the residue in open pits. Directly across the street from Neal's operation lies the historic Nazareth Baptist Church ... At one point, more than 100 thousand drums of waste littered the site, many of the barrels rusted and leaking. Residents say that exploding drums sounded like shotguns going off. In 1979, a spectacular fire launched hundreds of exploding barrels into the night sky. Nearly 75 residents living within two miles of the site were evacuated. It was the first hint many of them had that the operation posed a threat to their health."

If this is a shocking reminder of how much worse environmental management and regulation was just a few decades ago, the legislative and regulatory aspect of this story is even more terrifying, also because of a certain contemporary echo.

"In the late 1970s, Congress began learning the hard lessons from decades of dumping hazardous waste into the ground ... giving birth to the toxic waste incinerator industry. During the four years that it took EPA to write the regulations governing incineration, Neal got an interim status permit to burn toxic waste at the Robertson Road site. With the help of a Small Business Administration loan, Neal bought an incinerator. In 1983, under growing pressure from DHEC to clean up the site, Neal sold the operation, along with the interim permit, to the British-owned Stablex Company. The site was grossly contaminated, and the little incinerator that one DHEC official said looked like an overgrown garage heater was never used. What Stablex was really after was the interim permit. DHEC transferred Neal's permit to Stablex, and allowed it to build the incinerator that is still used today. In 1986, Stablex sold the operation and the valuable interim permit to a German company called NuKEM. NuKEM created a subsidiary called ThermalKEM to operate the incinerator. NuKEM didn't have any incinerator experience when it bought the Rock Hill site ... [and] was found to be at the center of a criminal enterprise to fix prices on handling nuclear waste and to divert nuclear materials to Third World black markets ... Legislation that would require DHEC to consider a company's past record of environmental crimes when considering a pollution permit was defeated by Republicans in the last legislative session ..."

In short, until we forced them to shut it down, the incinerator was operating 24 hours a day with few modifications since it was built in 1983, still on the temporary permit granted to Walter Neal in 1981, before the present incinerator was even built.

Download available Hazardous Waste - 1989 Report

Download available Hazardous Waste - 1991 Report