Author Topic: The steel mill -- a local history Part 7  (Read 602 times)

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Tom Rubillo

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The steel mill -- a local history Part 7
« on: March 27, 2022, 11:33:11 AM »
                                                                                                                                      The beat goes on

     In early 1966, Georgetown County dug several "borrow pits" on otherwise unused land near the county airport just south of town along Aviation Avenue.  Tennis courts and playing fields are a short distance to the east of the site of the excavations.  Shortly thereafter, both the city and the county began using the holes in the ground to dump trash.  There being no legal requirements about landfills at the time, no plastic liners, tarps or the like were installed before garbage and other refuse began to fill the pits. 

     In 1972, the steel mill started dumping clarified slurry and iron oxide waste into these pets.  In 1975 it got permission from the county to dispose of mill sludge there too.  Then, in 1976, it added bag house dust to the mix.  In 1977 it added more wet slurry.  This all continued until 1979 for reasons about to be explained.

     Sometime in late 1978 an adjoining property owner began to experience some stomach problems.  He went to the doctor.  When he told this physician that he, the patient, was drinking well water from his yard, the doctor asked for a sample to send to DHEC for testing.  DHEC did so.  As a result that agency conducted a hydro-geologic evaluation of the area, installing a monitoring well at the site and a "background" well at the airport.  Samples were collected from both and compared.  Results showed that the groundwater near the dump site was contaminated and unfit for human consumption.  It contained lead, cadmium and chrome as well as chlorides, ammonia, zinc and organic solids,, all at unacceptable levels.  Test samples were also very acidic, probably because of the use of lime in the steel making process.  All of these dangerous pollutants had, according to test results, migrated throughout the water table, including that used being consumed in neighboring homes.

     These very dramatic and drastic findings notwithstanding, the steel mill was allowed to continue to dump its contaminants at the site.  For unknown and otherwise inexplicable reasons -- no excuses or explanations appear in DHEC's records -- the mill's contribution to the problems was actually increased in 1980 to include mill-scale sludge, bag house dust, material from an iron ore washer pond and leftovers from the iron ore storage area at the mill.  (The mill later replaced the iron ore operation with scrap metal, a process producing similar contaminants, albeit differently.  Equipment used in the iron ore operation has since been torn down and that part of the property, still contaminated, now stands vacant.)   At the time of all of this dumping -- "externalizing" of the cost of proper disposal of dangerous contaminants -- all the heavy metals and dissolved solids involved were classified by DHEC and the federal Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) as "hazardous wastes."

                                                                                                                               Don't worry, be happy.

     With test results and federal and state regulations in hand, in early 1981 DHEC wrote to those drinking the water along Aviation Avenue and told those residents that there was nothing to worry about.   But in November of that same year Georgetown Steel and Georgetown County entered into a consent agreement with DHEC that resulted in the closure of the site.  Sometime thereafter part of the site was capped with paving material and fenced in.  The enclosed area reportedly does not include the area in which slag and slurry from the mill were dumped.  That area was not entombed.  DHEC records do not contain any evidence that soil samples were taken anywhere in the area even though the county has since expanded recreational facilities there.

     The next clue in the historical record that anything was amiss here came in July of 1984.  At that point the President of Georgetown Steel wrote to the Administrator of the City of Georgetown agreeing that the company would pay the city to have municipal water piped along Aviation Avenue, paying the "tap-on" fees to boot.  The mill executive also very generously, and inexplicably, offered to pay all the water bills of residents along the road even though those folks did not live within the city's limits.  Copies of these letters were sent to affected homeowners.

     In 1986, "K061 electric arc furnace dust" was upgraded (or downgraded, depending on your point of view) from being classified as a "hazardous" waste to a "toxic" one by both the federal EPA and DHEC.  These changes were the result of studies showing that, when airborne, the dust particles are so minute that they penetrate deeply into lung sacs and don't come out.  Again, like asbestos, it kills.  And, again, this deep penetrating quality accounts for the absence of Spanish moss in a wide circle near the mill.  An "epiphyte" that feeds on nutrients from air and rainwater, Spanish moss is like the canary in the coal mine that is killed by dangerously polluted air. 

     At the end of 1987, Georgetown Steel and the county entered into an agreement with DHEC in which both the company and the county accepted responsibility for meeting "post closure requirements" at the old dump on Aviation Avenue.  This agreement included a requirement that both signatories take actions to reduce groundwater contamination "attributable to any contaminants for which both parties share some responsibilities" for having "deposited or allowed to be deposited" hazardous and toxic substances at the site.  All of this happened, of course, without any public announcements, scrutiny or explanation.  Business as usual.

     In May of 2000, DHEC issued a "Post Closure Care Hazardous Waste Permit" to the county and Georgetown Steel.  It required monitoring of the site, identification of any environmental problems that might arise and that appropriate remedial action be taken.  It also required that a bond in the amount of $293,890.00 be posted.  Georgetown Steel purchased a letter of credit from J. P. Morgan Chase in compliance.  The county did nothing of the kind.

     In October of 2002, Georgetown Steel notified the city and the property owners on Aviation Avenue that it was filing for bankruptcy protection and would no longer pay the water bills of those whose wells were contaminated.  In response, in December of that year DHEC wrote to both the county and the company, putting both on notice of the agreement making each responsible for remediation at the site.  J. P. Morgan Chase was put on notice that it had to pay up.  The county collected the money and made some improvements in the paving capping the site (it was badly cracked, like the paving of local roads) and fenced in the area where new tarmac was spread.  The area that is fenced in is at the top of the hill and quite visible from the roadway.

                                                                                     Bankruptcy -- taking the worry out of being close[d]

     In February, 2003, the federal Bankruptcy Court in North Carolina allowed the now very unprofitable Georgetown Steel to, among other things (1) abandon its "personal property," including the hazardous and toxic waste on the mill site in the center of town, (2) abandon its responsibilities to DHEC, the county and the people whose wells were contaminated, and (3) to stop paying water bills for the residents along Aviation Avenue, among other things.  Nothing that happened in the Bankruptcy Court relieves, eases or discharges Georgetown County from its responsibilities under the "post closure agreement" for which it "shared responsibilit[y]" fir having "allowed" hazardous or toxic wastes "to be deposited" at the site.

     A full year later, in February of 2004, DHEC finally got around to conducting follow-up tests on the water by taking samples from monitoring wells that had been sunk around the dump site two decades earlier.  These  were the first samples taken since the initial ones years before.  For unexplained reasons, the formats of the earlier and later tests were different from one another.  So were the numbers used to identify the individual test wells.  This bureaucratic slight-of-hand made comparison of the results of the old and new samples difficult.  Attempts of agency obfuscation notwithstanding, results showed that toxic contaminants were leaching out of the site and migrating underground.  Whether any further tests of water or soil in the surrounding area have been made since is unknown to this writer.  Given the foregoing history, it is doubtful.  Out of sight, out of mind.