Illegal asbestos dumping creates headaches for environmental regulators

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of occasional stories about the growing dichotomy between environmental concerns and economic development in Horry County and along the Waccamaw Neck.

The owner of a Myrtle Beach demolition firm responsible for an asbestos-laced debris dump located in the midst of oceanfront hotels and vacationers plans to remove the pile of waste within the next two weeks, according to documents obtained by The Sun News.

Wells Alford – owner of Land Services of South Carolina LLC – has applied to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for a permit that would let him dispose of the waste located at 2605 S. Ocean Blvd. The waste came from the demolition of the adjacent Golden Sands motel, which Land Services tore down earlier this year.

The dump has drawn the attention of state regulators because breathing asbestos fibers can cause serious health problems – including lung cancer and mesothelioma – although such diseases usually don’t develop until after long-term exposure. DHEC officials say the oceanfront dump probably is not a health hazard, but the asbestos makes its removal tricky because of the precautions that have to be taken.

This is the second illegal waste dump created by Land Services, a company that has been cited numerous times for asbestos removal violations, according to DHEC records.

A larger dump on eight acres of land – estimated to have as much as 40 tractor-trailer loads of material, some of it containing asbestos – exists on property the company leases at 10545 Freewoods Road in Horry County.

DHEC has been trying to get Land Services to clean up that site since 2011. The agency took Alford to court in 2012 to enforce a consent order he signed agreeing to clean up the property. DHEC obtained a default judgment against Alford, but the debris has not been removed. In October, Alford provided DHEC with a draft remediation plan for the site. Work on that plan is in the early stages.

Alford said the creation of both dump sites were the result of bad information he received from consultants prior to dumping the material.

How did asbestos get there?

At the oceanfront site, Alford said a pre-demolition inspection report showed there was no asbestos in the Golden Sands building except for some vinyl flooring in the office area that was properly removed. Alford said he didn’t know there was any asbestos in the waste pile – which was being crush on-site by Land Services – until after DHEC tested the site in February.

Christopher Carney, a DHEC inspector, told Alford in a Feb. 26 email that “work needs to stop immediately until the amount of contamination can be determined and a clean up process can be put into place.” Two follow-up inspections over the next five weeks, however, showed that additional material – some if it also containing asbestos – had been added to the waste pile.

DHEC cited Land Services with 11 violations at the site, including: failure to properly dispose of asbestos-containing material; failure to maintain asbestos waste in a secured, locked location; and failure to remove asbestos containing material prior to demolition. Earlier this month, the violations were forwarded to DHEC’s Bureau of Air Quality enforcement section for further review.

Alford’s company ultimately stopped working on the site this spring, yet the debris pile was left open and accessible to passers-by. Land Services erected a fence around the pile last week to keep pedestrians from walking onto the property. DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the agency “does not believe the pile poses a risk to the public as long as the site is secure and the material is not disturbed.”

Shawn Wertz, who owns the Vancouver Motel next door to the waste pile, said work at the site was more of a nuisance when the crushing was taking place.

“It was pretty dusty and occasionally we had to give some refunds,” Wertz said, adding that he’s happy to see redevelopment of the Golden Sands property. These days, Vancouver Motel guests sometimes ask Wertz about the debris, but there haven’t been as many complaints. Wertz said he understands a restaurant eventually will be built on the site.

“Our customers are glad to see something is being done over there,” Wertz said.

Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said the city hasn’t taken any enforcement action over the dump site, which is in the parking lot of the Holiday South motel. Land Services is supposed to demolish that hotel but the company first must obtain an asbestos certification from DHEC.

Alford blamed a faulty Golden Sands inspection report for failing to identify all of that hotel’s asbestos prior to demolition. He said he is at the mercy of third-party inspectors who are hired by property owners.

“It’s basically Russian roulette with the inspectors,” he said. “Some will spend a week and take numerous samples, others will do a quick inspection and charge just $2,000 for it. I can only go by what the licensed inspector’s report says.”

Richard Eason, owner of Environmental Service Group in Myrtle Beach, performed the inspection of the Golden Sands. He said some asbestos was identified in the hotel’s office and it was properly abated.

The asbestos found in the oceanfront debris pile could have come from another site. In addition to the Golden Sands waste, Land Services dumped demolition debris from an unrelated, single-family home project onto the oceanfront pile.

“I’m a big boy and if it’s my fault I’ll tell you,” Eason said. “In this case, it wasn’t my fault.”

Lawsuit over Freewoods dump

In March 2011, Alford signed a consent order with DHEC agreeing to clean up an illegal dump located on property Land Services was leasing from owner Smart Smalls Jr. on Freewoods Road. State regulators determined that Alford’s company had taken about 40 tractor trailer loads of debris from a hotel demolition project and dumped it on the vacant lot instead of hauling it to a landfill as required by law, according to DHEC documents.

Smalls could not be reached for comment.

Alford, in the consent order, agreed to move the material to a landfill within three months. DHEC issued an $11,000 civil penalty against Alford’s company, but agreed to cut the fine in half since Alford was willing to haul away the material in a timely manner.

Alford paid the fine, but never hauled off the debris.

Court records show DHEC agreed to extend the deadline for Alford to remove the waste on at least seven different occasions, with the final extension expiring on July 26, 2012. DHEC investigators made at least five visits to the site during a one-year period beginning Aug. 9, 2011, and each time noted “slow or no progress” in removing the waste.

Instead, investigators noticed that Land Services had been adding more debris to the dump site even after the consent order was signed.

While DHEC was waiting for Alford to remove the debris, one of the agency’s inspectors noticed what looked like asbestos-containing material in one of the piles. Ten samples came back positive for asbestos, and Alford’s company was cited with 11 more violations of state environmental regulations.

Some of the asbestos-containing material was from demolition of the Chesterfield Inn in Myrtle Beach, a project Land Services didn’t start until August 2012 – more than a year after Alford signed the consent order.

DHEC ultimately took Alford to court and in December won a default judgment ordering cleanup of the property. Alford also was ordered to pay the other half of the original fine that DHEC had issued nearly three years earlier.

To date, the 11 debris piles identified by DHEC have yet to be removed. Alford has submitted an initial work plan to DHEC, but its review is in the early stages and the cleanup is complicated by the discovery of asbestos in the debris.

Alford told The Sun News that he dumped demolition debris on the property in 2010 because he was mistakenly told by a Myrtle Beach asbestos inspector that he could store and sort debris on the property for up to 30 days before removing it to a licensed landfill. Alford did not identify the inspector who gave him that information.

Steve Gosnell, Horry County’s assistant administrator for infrastructure and regulation, said the county has not received any complaints about the Freewoods Road dump. He said environmental regulations typically are left up to DHEC to enforce.

A history of violations

DHEC has taken other action against Land Services, including:

• A $25,000 civil penalty issued in 2013 for improper removal of asbestos at the Bahama Motel located at 904 S. Ocean Blvd. in Myrtle Beach.

• A notice of violation of Environmental Protection Agency regulations issued in 2012 for demolishing the Scoops Ice Cream building at 1401 S Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach without conducting an asbestos survey or obtaining a demolition license.

• A March 27 inspection noted 13 violations of asbestos regulations at the Tradewinds Motel demolition site at 2201 N. Withers Dr. in Myrtle Beach. The violations included asbestos-containing debris that had been dumped into a drained swimming pool on the property.

Alford said many of the citations issued to his company have been the result of simple misunderstandings or complaints filed by jealous competitors.

“This is a very competitive, dog-eat-dog business,” Alford said, adding that demolition companies often will file complaints against their competitors just to disrupt their business. Many of the DHEC inspection reports show the inspections were sparked by an anonymous complaint.

“I’ve had numerous vehicles vandalized,” Alford said. “We’ve taken a little bit of work from some of the other businesses and they don’t like it.”

Karon Mitchell, who owned the Chesterfield Inn, said she witnessed competitive retaliation first-hand when her hotel was being torn down in 2012. One of the demolition company owners who had bid on the project “was upset that he didn’t get the job,” Mitchell said, and she noticed him driving by the hotel one day while Land Services was working at the site.

“We saw the guy drive by and Richard [Eason, who was working at the site along with Land Services] said, ‘Well, we can expect to see DHEC here in a couple of days,” Mitchell said. “Sure enough, they received a complaint and came out to inspect the property.”

The inspection did not turn up any violations and Mitchell said she was pleased with the work Land Services did at the Chesterfield Inn, which is now the Shark Attack Adventure Golf miniature golf course. Mitchell said she did not know Land Services had taken some of the Chesterfield debris and dumped it at the Freewoods Road site.

Nancy Cave, north coast director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League, said she is “amazed that people aren’t up in arms” over the illegal dump sites. “I can’t believe the hoteliers are allowing the oceanfront site to stay there.”

For Wertz, owner of the Vancouver Motel, potential health impacts haven’t been a big concern for himself or guests.

“That neighboring property has been a thorn in our side for years,” he said. “Anything that happens over there can only be an improvement.”