Jasper County, S.C. (WTOC) - For years, neighbors complained about the growing debris pile on Schinger Avenue.
“I think that I really became alarmed when the pile was above his office," said Teresa Forrest, who lives near the Able Contracting site. "You know, it was a pretty good sized pile, and it was just getting bigger and bigger.”
Forrest has complained more than 100 times, she estimates. Several of those complaints triggered visits from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, but it wasn’t enough to stop the debris from growing.
Records released to WTOC News by the SC DHEC reveal a long, contentious relationship with the owner of Able Contracting - one that goes back to 2013. Complaints from neighbors prompted multiple site visits, and investigations, none of which resulted in fines or stop work orders, until the pile caught fire in late June. It was the second fire at the site (the other occurred in 2015), and it was enough for the EPA to take control of the site and hire a contractor to extinguish the blaze. It could cost as much as $4.5 million to completely remove the pile. Facility owner Chandler Lloyd has said he did nothing wrong.
Up until the South Carolina Solid Waste Act changed in 2018, the site operated as a Recovered Material Processing Facility, which meant Able Contracting voluntarily registered with the state. At first, permits were not required, and the rules were broad.
Images from Google Street View show the rapid growth of the pile, which from 2013 to 2019, grew from a few feet high to taller than the telephone poles and pine trees.
For Able Contracting owner Chandler Lloyd, the height of the pile was a sign of his success in the business. He attributed the rapid growth to changes in the global market, and China’s decision to no longer accept recycled material from America. When that happened, Lloyd scaled back his cardboard recycling and began accepting large quantities of wood materials. Using a wood chipper to break down the material, he says he would turn around and sell it to companies for boiler fuel. The pile quickly grew, and drew the attention of Jasper County fire officials.
"We went as high as 90 (feet), Lloyd said. "The county had a fit about it, and we took it down to 45 (feet) by shredding. We were doing very well until this last fire."
As for state regulations, the most stringent requirement until 2018 was that Able Contracting submit an annual report to show how much debris the company had recycled. It's known as the 75 percent rule, and it worked like this: As long as the registered owner was able to show that the company recycled 75 percent in weight of the materials on site, then it was in compliance. It's how the lighter materials on site grew into enormous piles.
The complaints from neighbors didn’t stop, and that triggered dozens of surprise inspections from the SC DHEC, according to DHEC’s filed complaint records.
“Oh, I was their poster child. They inspected us so many times,” Lloyd said. “They would show up unannounced, and they would walk around with their cameras at their side like we’re doing something wrong, and I’m like, 'if you want to take a picture, just take a picture.”
During one of those visits in 2016, the state said Able Contracting needed a storm water management permit to protect the nearby Okatie watershed from runoff.
For a year and three months, Lloyd refused to comply. He resisted because he felt the rules for him constantly changed.
"The left hand with DHEC does not know what the right hand is doing," Lloyd said.
State health officials would not agree to a one-on-one interview, but at a recent news conference, Myra Reece, DHEC’s Director of Environmental Affairs, acknowledged the legal shortcomings.
“We recognize and identified that that was a gap in our regulations, and actually brought it to the attention of our General Assembly,” Reece said.
In 2018, South Carolina state lawmakers made sweeping changes to the Solid Waste Act, and tightened regulations for facilities like Able Contracting.
“Unfortunately, operators like this were already in operation, and now the law required them to go get those permits,” said Sen. Tom Davis, South Carolina (R-Beaufort). “This guy couldn’t meet those requirements, so he couldn’t get those permits.”
Instead of shutting him down, the state gave Able Contracting a grace period to come into compliance - until May of 2020. In the midst of that, the debris pile caught fire.
At a recent press conference, WTOC Investigates brought that to the attention of Sen. Davis.
"Clearly, a situation like this can't be allowed to happen again," he said.
Lloyd has since withdrawn his solid waste permit application. He said his recycling business, which kept items out of the landfill, doesn't have a place anymore.
"You know, there's got to be an easier way to make a living," Lloyd said. "You would think that if you're trying to do something good, and it's turned 180 degrees, the opposite way."
So where does this leave people like Carina Curiel who lives a few doors down? She endured the worst of it.
“(The smoke) was unbearable, and we couldn’t sleep at night. It was getting so bad,” Curiel said.
For the past three weeks, she along with her mother, sister and two children have lived out of a hotel, and will until the EPA officials say it’s safe to come back home.
“We don’t know what tomorrow is going to be - nobody knows,” Curiel said. “But it’s like okay, can we go home tomorrow? You know, so it’s like what’s next?”
Sen. Davis has committed to removing the debris pile and a complete cleanup of the site. Monday, he estimated it would cost taxpayers in South Carolina about $4.5 million. He expects DHEC to take control of the site within the next couple weeks once the EPA is finished.
Since the law changed in 2018, there are four other facilities like Able Contracting that are not in compliance and require a permit, according to information the state provided in August. They are:
- Corley Construction Company LLC, a 152-acre construction and debris facility on Wassinger Road in Columbia, SC
- Pro Disposal LLC construction, an 18-acre debris, asphalt, brick, concrete and metal facility on Bay Pines in Beaufort, SC
- Thompson Building Wrecking Co., a 15-acre facility for bricks and concrete ooff Storm Branch Road on Beech Island, SC
- S.H. Carter Development Inc, an alm,ost 17-acre facility for construction and debris, yard debris, aluminum and plastic off Sentell Road in Greenville SC.