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‘An assault on life’: Andrews facility still open despite repeated violations

WILLIAMSBURG COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) – Neighbors in Williamsburg County say an unbearable stench from a nearby facility has caused them years of suffering, and despite repeatedly violating the law, it’s still operational.

“It’s like somebody shut you in an old-time loo, outdoor toilet, and pushed your face down in the poo and you have to stay there,” Janey Milligan said. “It eats our lives. It has sucked the air out of every room of our house.”

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, which permits Williamsburg Recycling LLC, is the only agency that has the authority to address the problems at the site. But, much to neighbors’ disappointment, they say DHEC hasn’t taken steps to hold the business properly accountable.

“I call them ‘what the heck’ because it’s unclear as to what they actually do,” Dennis Milligan said.

The Milligans live about a half mile away from the facility on Parker Road in Andrews. It processes sludge or biosolids, a byproduct of the sewage processing at Plum Island in Charleston. It gets delivered by truck every week.

The Hugheys live even closer and say the smell has changed their idyllic lives, for the worse.

“You can’t get rid of it. You can’t escape it,” Travis Hughey. “We’re held prisoner on our own property.”

“Just an assault on life,” Lorie Hughey said.

According to its permit from DHEC, the business is supposed to keep the odor under control and have a plan to keep it in check.

But neighbors have testified time and time again that hasn’t happened.

“It gets so heavy sometimes that you can actually taste it,” Dennis Milligan said.

In the last three years, documents show DHEC inspectors found repeated violations, including but not limited to, the where it is illegal to discharge any air contaminants to an “undesirable level” which may “unreasonably interfere with enjoyment of life or use of property”.

Last March, an inspector noted an “awful” smell coming from the facility and a “steaming pile” of sludge on the receiving pad.

Two months later investigators tried wearing masks to mute the “extremely strong sewage odor” but found they didn’t have any effect.

In total, DHEC found Williamsburg Recycling was in violation 16 times out of 27 site visits. But according to court records, the owners, Suzanne Conway and Stephen Hekker, question the validity of these visits, complaining that “no scientific or even objective measure of “odor” was taken.

DHEC told the facility it would not be renewing its permit in January 2020, but later rescinded its statement.

It has still not signed off on a draft permit.

“I can’t sleep at night, I get headaches. I am anxious,” Janey said.

The process is considered a green alternative to dumping the waste. But it also saves Charleston Water $1,550 per load by sending the biosolids to Williamsburg County rather than the landfill.

DHEC could also issue a cease-and-desist if the “undesirable level is not corrected [within] the required time” according to the Pollution Act.

But no such thing has come despite the complaints that have continued to pile up like the waste material these neighbors say they often notice on site or left in chunks on the road.

“The law is supposed to protect us,” Travis said.

Last June, DHEC , the first step in its enforcement process but this action is still “pending” months later.

Because no final determination has come, DHEC representatives stated they could not comment on the case.

“We’re just tired of it. We’re done,” Janey said.

DHEC says “in general” businesses actively going through that process are also allowed to continue operation, so Williamsburg Recycling is still active and even hopeful to take on new clients like Mount Pleasant Waterworks.

Conway says what she calls the “bait and switch” by DHEC over the permit and “misleading” statements by agency officials has led to a challenge in court.

Last month, they sued DHEC for violating their due process and putting them at risk of foreclosure.

According to court records, the business alleges business partners were wary to work with them without the updated permit and they’re still on the hook to repay a $2.1 million business loan.

Conway is insistent that the business is following all of the rules and if they were doing anything wrong they’d be “shut down already.”

But that’s exactly what neighbors say has been long overdue.

“This situation permeates and fills every moment of our existence out here,” Travis said.

There is no timeline for a final decision from DHEC, leaving both sides in limbo.