Author Topic: The steel mill -- a local history Part 8  (Read 615 times)

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Tom Rubillo

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The steel mill -- a local history Part 8
« on: March 27, 2022, 07:52:20 PM »
                                                                                                                 Water pollution and flooding

     Serious and chronic air pollution, ground water contamination, casual dumping of hazardous and toxic wastes, and the like were not the only costs to the community and the environment "externalized" during mill operations. 

     Originally the mill produced steel by crushing up imported iron ore that was fed it into a furnace to melt at high temperatures.  That part of the operation was conducted by using the old towers, crushers and conveyor system that was located on mill property between Wood to Dozier Street.  Those structures have since been torn down.  This process was ultimately replaced by one that involved melting down scrap metal.  Much of the scrap used came from old, ground up automobiles.  Significant amounts of heavy metals had to be smelted out in this process.  These heavy metals -- lead, chrome, cadmium -- are not biodegradable but persist in the environment and are supposed to be disposed of in specialized, sealed landfills. 

     Generally operating more carelessly or thoughtlessly than was necessary or prudent, mill mangers allowed both rainwater runoff and water it used to cool slag to flow into the Sampit River next to the mill.  The river makes two sharp turns at that location.  While some of this material washed further down the river and into the bay (where it did not disappear by any means}, much of it accumulated near the mill's dock.  The silt at that location is now the most toxic part of the river.

     Compounding this problem was the drainage system initially constructed by Willy Korf to handle storm water run-off in the Front Street basin.  That was the runoff that originally flowed through the creek bed that preexisted the mill's construction.  Willy Korf had an open ditch built in the creek bed and installed a pump house at the outlet by the river.  As designed, the ditch was narrower than the creek and walled with rip-rap, remaining open on top for its entire length.  A railroad track into the mill's property was then laid within a few feet of the western wall of the ditch.  Mill managers thereafter designated an area next to the ditch as the site where hot ashes from the mill's furnace would be piled up and cooled down with water pumped from the Sampit River.  Some of that water drained into the ditch.  The remainder flowed directly into the Sampit River.  Whether a water quality permit the mill had gotten from DHEC allowed this direct discharge is anybody's guess.  I found no record of DHEC dealing with or taking enforcement action in this regard.

     As this "cooling" (but not quite hot) water flowed into the ditch and the river, it carried both larger cinders and smaller sand-sized particles along with it.  Because neither the city nor the steel mill maintained the ditch or attempted to remove the sand and cinders, it accumulated over the years and ultimately hardened into something that very much resembled cement.  This clogged the ditch and made it useless.  Flooding resulted.
    In a previous section of this local history mention was made of a lawsuit by the city because of flooding within a short time after the mill opened.  The ditch was cleaned out and the city accepted a payment of $25,000.00 to settle the suit, signing releases in the process.  If they bothered to read what they were signing, city officials did not notice or note that three of the four of those relieved the mill of all future liability.  Only the fourth one did not.  During all of the years that this writer practiced law I NEVER saw a release that let a defendant free to commit ANY wrong of any kind in the future, let alone the very same wrongdoing that led to the lawsuit in the first place.

     Legal papers signed and the check deposited in the municipal account, everyone went back to business as usual.  Unfortunately, within a few years the ditch became clogged again.  Flooding around Front and Fraser Street became a very chronic problem that caused a good deal of expense and loss to area businesses.  Deduct the resulting losses from the "benefits" side of the cost/benefit analysis, along with any medical costs associated with lung disease, the reduction in area property values because of the "fugitive dust" that settled onto and ate into buildings, and the lost economic opportunities that accompanied Georgetown's general reputation as a "dirty little mill town."

     Because of constant complaints from nearby property owners, the city hired an engineer to study the flooding problem.  He advised the city council that it should abandon the storm water easement and pipe drainage water around the mill because of "environmental problems" at the mill.  His comments were reported in the local newspaper.  Mill managers hit the roof and showed up at the very next council meeting and sat there glaring as the engineer meekly told the council that there were no environmental problems at the mill.  Say what!  This blatant corporate intimidation of an expert hired by the city resulted in a stern exchange of correspondence between the mayor and the mill manager. That, too, was reported in the local newspaper.

     While these events were unfolding the mayor and city administrator inspected the ditch.  That walk-through revealed that the ditch had, once again, filled up with slag and sand.  That debris had, once again, hardened into a solid concrete-like dam or barrier obstructing the free flow of water.  Adding to the problem was the fact that the ditch had narrowed in width because of the lateral pressure exerted on its rip-rap walls by railroad cars as they went in and out of the mill.

     The city council had numerous meetings about the flooding.  One member actually crawled down into the drain at an access point on Front Street to see for himself what was causing the problem.  He reported what he saw to the council.   

     The most popular, sensible and cost effective solution at the time was a recommendation to clean out the ditch one last time and bury a very large concrete pipe to enclose the system to keep it from being obstructed.  The price tag for this work was estimated to be about $5,000,000.00.  Other plans were suggested too, including one that involved piping water around the mill, uphill from Fraserl to Wood along Front Street and then directing its flow downhill along Wood into the Sampit.  This plan involved installing a pump house near Front and Dozier Sts.  Involving a great deal more digging, labor, materials and equipment, this plan was rejected by the council because (1) it was much more expensive and (2) members of council feared that the pumps might fail just when they were needed the most.

     While all of the foregoing events were unfolding, the mayor and administrator met with the mill's chief executive to discuss the mill's legal liabilities for the flooding.  The mill manager laid out the three releases that were favorable to his position and smiled.  The mayor handed him the fourth one explaining that because Georgetown Steel had merged the four separate entities Willy Korf had to created as a liability shield, it had "eaten" the fourth release too.  That meant, as a matter of law, that the now much larger Georgetown Steel was back on the hook.  After consulting with company lawyers, mill management agreed to (1) clean the slag out of the ditch and (2) move the slag pile and begin to recirculate the water used to cool the slag pile so it would not flow back into the ditch or contaminate the Sampit River further. DHEC reportedly approved this plan.

     The mill kept its promise and had the ditch cleaned out.  This resolved much of the flooding problem.  Local business owners stopped complaining.  Pressure to find a solution to this problem, council's attention turned to other matters.  DHEC took no further action.   As the expression goes, politicians (and bureaucrats) only see the light if they feel the heat.

     There was a change in administrations at city hall.  Georgetown Steel went bankrupt.  Its ownership changed hand.  Promises to keep the ditch clear and recycle cooling water were forgotten.  The ditch filled with slag and sand once more.  Flooding, once again, because a very serious problem.  A nearby car dealership lost more than a $1,000,000.00 in parts and other inventory as a result.  Lawsuits followed and council members, once again, started talking about finding a solution.  The plan those members approved involved digging a retaining pond next to city hall, a pump house across the street from the pond, digging up Front Street all the way up to Wood Street and then down to the Sampit River from there.  This, of course, was the very same plan that had been rejected about a decade before as being too risky and expense.  By this time the cost of the proposed solution more than had tripled with some estimates ranging upward of $20,000,000.00.

     In an effort to keep costs in line, the city entered into an agreement with the SC Department of Transportation (the highway department) to split the costs of construction with the state agency taking over supervision of construction.  It was during the course of that construction that massive volumes of water (in the millions of gallons) were pumped from underground.  Several sinkholes appeared.  One nearby commercial building collapsed.  Fortunately, this occurred at night while no one was inside.  Other area buildings were damaged too, including a bank building that had to be abandoned and the new courthouse that the county had just finished constructing.  A large fault line appeared in the rotunda of city hall where political vanity and self-importance had resulted in a portrait (or rogues') gallery of then present and former city officeholders being displayed.   That entire building had to be abandoned because it was unsafe to occupy.  It has since been demolished.  The city now rents very expensive quarters elsewhere while haggling continues about whether, where and/or when to build a new city hall that "makes a statement" about the efficiency and grandeur of municipal government.  And, as might well be expected, very costly lawsuits following with everyone involved  pointing various fingers of blame at everyone else. 

     One final ironic note to this episode, once the entire project was finally completed there was a very big and heavy rainstorm.  As feared, the pumps next to the retention pond failed, not because there was anything wrong with them, but because no one had been assigned by the city to turn them on.  Serious flooding that caused even more damage resulted.
     This brings up to contemporary times.  Those will be discussed in upcoming parts of this local history.