Lawmakers visit Jasper County trash pile fire, express concerns for safety

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RIDGELAND, S.C. (WSAV) – Officials now say there is no threat to the air quality in Beaufort County from the massive debris pile fire just across the border in Ridgeland.

But the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits they told businesses in the area to evacuate Thursday after a toxic chemical was found in the air.

That call prompted lawmakers from around the area on Friday to visit and see the problem for themselves.

“What I am being told by DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) and EPA is past tests and current tests show no danger to the watershed. I’d like to have that verified, I’d like to see more tests done,” said State Senator Tom Davis.

Concerns about possible runoff from the firefighting techniques was one of the reasons Davis came to the site to see and smell the giant debris pile.

This comes just one day after hazardous levels of hydrogen cyanide were found in the air at the site. Officials say it is safe for them to work there now, but recommend they have a plan in place “just in case” things change.

“Do you believe they are safe where they are working now?” News 3 asked.

“Yes,” said Ron Toliver, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator. “So as far as we know, from where we get the data we have, yes. But if that changes we will have a system where we communicate that.”

Local, state and federal agencies are all now involved in putting out the fire and cleanup.

Senator Davis says South Carolina has pledged $1.5 million to help with parts of cleanup. The federal government will now pick up the rest of the tab, including the temporary relocation of 25 people who live nearby.

The EPA says those residents will not be back home for a “significant amount of time.”

Residents like Carina Curiel don’t believe they’ll be in their homes again.

“I have lost all hope to come back here. I don’t care to come back,” she said, adding, “Why would I? Why would anybody?”

The first job is putting out the fires and making sure the air and water are safe. That will take weeks, if not months.

Then, some legislators say its time question why this all happened in the first place and how the area can avoid an environmental catastrophe.

“How did this happen and how was it allowed to happen?” asks South Carolina House Rep. Shedron Williams. “We have some questions outside of what’s happening now that we have to answer.”

“It is an awful smell,” says State Senator Margie Matthews. “I was here only a few minutes, long enough to take photographs of the site, and my eyes are starting to hurt, and my head I can feel it hurting. I can’t believe we are at this point.”

News 3 asked if she believes there is a health threat, despite the latest word from the EPA.

“Anyone who says that when they hear the word cyanide, I challenge them to bring their children down here and sit them on this site for two hours,” Matthews said.

The EPA has been monitoring air quality at nearby Okatie Elementary and says there has been nothing in the air to stop kids from going to school. That means Beaufort County plans to start class there as normal on Monday.

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