By Paul Gable
Horry County Solid Waste Authority (SWA) officials evidenced a paranoid reaction to local media last week when commenting on water samples taken near the landfill for contamination testing.
SWA Executive Director Danny Knight and landfill operations head Mike Bessant both called the desire of the county Infrastructure and Regulation Committee to test the water as politically motivated.
Bessant was quoted in local media as saying those raising concerns about water quality want to “discredit the authority and try to make them look bad” and “everybody’s always after us to try to get us down.”
Knight was quoted as saying private haulers have tried to take some of the business in the county and some council members “get on the soapbox and scream.”
County council member Johnny Vaught, never one to miss a chance to be quoted in local media, was credited as saying there is a faction in Horry County that wants to dissolve the SWA.
This effort to redirect the conversation from potential water contamination near the landfill to political tactics to discredit the authority was immediately repeated by a local reporter who appears to have very little knowledge of the history of the SWA.
The SWA was created 30 years ago by county council under county Ordinance 60-90.
The first paragraph of that ordinance reads, “There is a need in Horry County to develop an acceptable alternative method of solid waste disposal and to reduce the tonnage of solid waste disposal in sanitary landfills due to the County’s high water table and other geologic characteristics that make utilization and expansion of the existing landfill and development of new landfills especially expensive and difficult.”
That is a formal way of saying dumping garbage in and around a swamp is not good public policy. Develop alternative methods for disposing of the county’s garbage.
When the authority was created, the general consensus on county council was the existing landfill had approximately seven years left until it was full. By the time that landfill was closed, the SWA would have developed plans to oversee safe and effective ways to transfer and dispose of the garbage elsewhere, presumably in landfills in other parts of the state.
Almost from its beginning, the SWA Board of Directors ignored the search for alternative methods of solid waste disposal for county garbage and began building what has become a very large bureaucracy.
Approximately 20 years ago, after the original landfill was expanded on site, the SWA board entered into planning with nine other counties to develop a regional landfill agency with the Horry County landfill acting as the host site for the garbage from all 10 counties in the regional concept.
Rather than looking for alternative means for the county’s garbage, the SWA was prepared to take in garbage from nine other counties into the Horry County landfill. A memorable joint meeting of county council and SWA board members was held at the SWA’s Hwy 90 new offices where that idea was squashed.
The SWA board quickly proposed a user fee be charged on all county tax bills to provide a dedicated revenue stream for the SWA. The SWA approach to managing the landfill has always been and continues to be revenue oriented rather than cost (of landfill operations) oriented. In other words, cost containment and cost effectiveness are not considered by the SWA board and staff as long as the authority secures enough revenue (taxes and fees) to cover the expenses of this large bureaucracy. This is the main reason the board has never wanted to consider allowing trash to go out of the county.
Approximately 16 years ago, the SWA board denied a proposal from a private hauling company to take the county’s municipal solid waste (MSW) (wet garbage) out of the county to the Lee Landfill in Lee County. More recently (12 years ago), the SWA board successfully lobbied county council to make it a requirement that all MSW generated in the county must be disposed at the Hwy 90 landfill.
Talking about politics and the SWA, in one year the authority spent $1 million lobbying statehouse representatives and senators to not pass a bill reversing the SWA death grip on the municipal solid waste flow in the county. The SWA is one of the most politically oriented and active public agencies in the county.
For years the SWA tried to pass itself off as an independent private non-profit corporation before finally being forced to admit it is, in fact, a component unit of county government.
Paragraph one of Ordinance 60-90 continues to be ignored to this day while the SWA bureaucracy grows.
Current SWA board member Pam Creech wrote and distributed a letter to county taxpayers in 2001. She said more power over decisions about solid waste should be given to county council not the unelected board of the SWA. She referred to the user fee and regional landfill issues in her letter.
“My main point is that members of the Horry County Solid Waste Authority (board) have too much power to make decisions that will affect all of us in the future,” said Creech. “It is clear that the Horry County Solid Waste Authority has not been listening to the concerns of the people. These decisions are being made by appointed officials and not elected officials. I think some definitive debate should be given to restructuring the Horry County Solid Waste Authority and the ultimate power that it has…It is my understanding that a council person will be proposing an ordinance to restructure the authority on September 4, 2001. Horry County Council should be directly more accountable to its citizenry in decisions of the magnitude and importance mentioned above.”\
Suffice it to say that as an eight-year SWA board member including two years as board chairman, Creech has drunk the Hwy 90 Kool Aid including actively supporting the current ongoing landfill expansion and plans for future expansion at the Hwy 90 landfill.
Residents in the Lees Landing area are blaming the SWA and its continued landfill and other infrastructure additions for the increased flooding they have experienced over the last five years. With all the impervious surfaces that have been added to former wetlands at the SWA, that is not a baseless conclusion.
The recent taking of water samples near the landfill resulted from a water quality report on similar samples provided to the Horry County Infrastructure and Regulation Committee last week. Committee Chairman Al Allen immediately called for testing by an independent agency to verify or disavow the report provided to his committee. It was reported that at least a portion of those samples were taken from Sterritt Swamp.
County administrator Steve Gosnell contacted Coastal Carolina University to conduct tests for the county. CCU reportedly only tested for E.coli contamination. Gosnell worked for Knight when Knight was county administrator and has been an ex officio board member for a number of years. In 2013, the SWA had a washout of a pond behind the leachate tanks and SWA consultant engineer Vance Moore admitted at a SWA board meeting that some leachate fluid had spilled over onto adjoining areas.
The original report provided to the committee showed very high concentrations of E.coli bacteria in the water and a report from CCU provided to the county showed similarly high concentrations of the bacteria.
However, while the CCU test was for E.coli only, the original tests showed concentrations of toxic heavy metals chromium, barium and zinc.
SWA officials blamed the E.coli on seagulls who feast on the landfill garbage but the heavy metal findings have not been addressed to date.
Someone should address how barium, zinc and chromium got into Sterritt Swamp near the landfill.
It is certainly time for the buddy-buddy behind the scenes decision making at the SWA to stop, for the authority to become completely transparent and for county council to insist that Ordinance 60-90 be adhered to.