South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Millions more recommended to protect Lake Marion from toxic waste dump
January 11th, 2016


South Carolina needs an extra $4.8 million to protect Lake Marion and the surrounding environment from a closed hazardous waste dump that, without proper care, could leak toxic chemicals in rural Sumter County, according to a new study.

The report, written by the landfill’s management team, recommends that most of the money — about $3.5 million — be spent installing a new synthetic cover over the dump’s oldest and most vulnerable section near Lake Marion.

Water is believed to be seeping through the existing synthetic cap, which could eventually create enough pressure to cause a leak from the oldest part of the landfill, according to the report by the Pinewood Site Custodial Trust. The new cover would go across the one now in place.

But the report also recommends studying other improvements that could contain toxin-riddled water from seeping toward the lake. Those include a system to contain poisoned landfill gases, a wall to keep polluted water from leaving the landfill, and trenches to intercept toxins that could trickle out of the waste dump.

“Current funding is not sufficient to fully pay for these needs,’’ the study said, adding that the site “belongs to the people of the state of South Carolina and it is very unlikely the people will be able to avoid responsibility for the site.’’

Ben Hagood, a member of the landfill’s management team, said the costs itemized in the report are the latest in an ongoing challenge to properly oversee the Pinewood dump in Sumter County.

The landfill’s operator, Safety Kleen, declared bankruptcy in South Carolina about 15 years ago and exited the state. The company left some money to pay annual operating costs, but that has proven inadequate — and taxpayers are spending about $4 million annually to make up the difference in operating costs alone.

Now, the site needs another $4.8 million to install the new landfill cap and to study other upgrades, Hagood’s report said. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature would spend that amount at a time it is deliberating how to improve roads, fix the state’s education system and help the state recover from flooding in October.

“This report has nothing to do with whether the landfill should have been sited there — it’s just dealing with the reality of what it is now and what the current costs are,’’ Hagood said.

Former state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, said the report’s recommendations are a painful reminder of how past state policies are today hurting taxpayers. South Carolina regulators agreed in the late 1970s to allow the hazardous waste industry to establish the landfill. DHEC, under pressure from lawmakers, then backed away from a plan to require the Pinewood dump’s operators to establish a $133 million cash trust fund to help defray cleanup costs.

“South Carolina was made a patsy by an industry that had support from the Chamber of Commerce and (other) industries while it was in operation,’’ Leventis said. “Now, (Safety Kleen) is long gone and it has left us with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term obligations.’’

A longtime critic of the landfill, Leventis was among a group of people the Pinewood Trust asked to help put together the report. The group included environmentalists, state regulators, politicians and natural resources officials, who met privately with the Pinewood Trust over several months.

The 38-year-old landfill is just a few hundred yards from the picturesque Sparkleberry Swamp and 110,000-acre Lake Marion, the largest recreational reservoir in South Carolina. During the height of operations, the landfill took industrial waste from across the South. The amount buried there exceeded 5 million tons, according to past research by The State newspaper.

The draft report is open for public comment and will be presented to the Legislature later this month. It lists a litany of concerns that need study, aside from a new cap across the top of the oldest section. Among the spending recommendations:

▪ $450,000 for a system to stop rainwater from getting into a newer section of the landfill. Such an improvement could limit the build up of toxic water inside the buried hazardous waste.

▪ $60,000 for an engineer to study establishing a system that would catch landfill gases. Estimates have put the cost of such a system at $2 million. Landfill gases have been reported to be seeping through the top of the oldest section’s top liner and polluting groundwater at the surface.

▪ $60,000 for an engineer or consultant to evaluate and design a trench system around the landfill’s oldest section and part of another section. That could cost as much as $2 million.

▪ $100,000 for an engineer or consultant to design and estimate the cost of building a barrier wall around the oldest sections of the landfill. That could block the flow of toxins toward the lake. Estimates have placed the cost of such a system at $5.8 million, but the report says the wall is “an expensive option that needs more investigation.’’

▪ $70,000 to clean out a system designed to collect toxic water that builds up in the landfill.

Many recommendations in the report released Monday were addressed by Kestrel Horizons, a company hired by DHEC in 2003 to oversee the site soon after the bankruptcy. In 2014, then-DHEC director Catherine Templeton forced Kestrel to resign as site trustee, saying the company’s work could be done more efficiently. But Kestrel executive Bill Stephens said the Pinewood site needed improvements that DHEC had failed to implement. Hagood and another Charleston lawyer, Rob Kerr, replaced Stephens on an interim basis.

State Sen. Thomas McElveen, a Democrat who replaced Leventis in the Legislature, said lawmakers face a difficult task trying to find money to pay for the landfill. But he said it’s important to address the threat to the lake, a drinking water source and one of the state’s top attractions for fishermen, boaters and nature enthusiasts.

“It is a huge public-safety concern,’’ McElveen said. “It is not going away. It is something we are going to have to deal with.’’

To view the report and comment, go to

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