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Pawleys Creek: Teams seek source of diesel odor

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A state lab has put a priority on identifying the substance that officials fear may be leaking into Pawleys Creek through a new drainage system along the North Causeway.

Three groups from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control have been to the causeway in the last week since Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis reported smelling diesel fuel and seeing dark brown water flowing into the creek from a drain pipe at the North Causeway bridge.

“Anytime we have a discharge into a water system, it definitely makes it a priority for us,” said Matt Maxwell, an environmental manager for DHEC.

But it may be difficult to trace the source of the discharge even when it is identified, he said.

The agency brought in a waste assessment team to take samples. The initial screening was “inconclusive,” Maxwell said.

A more detailed analysis normally takes a couple of weeks, but he hopes to have some results this week.

Agency staff who deal with underground storage tanks are also investigating. “There seems to be some indication this may be a groundwater matter,” Maxwell said.

Otis first reported smelling diesel while walking along the causeway about six weeks ago. DHEC investigated, but the smell disappeared.

Otis was driving across the bridge last Thursday when he smelled it again. He stopped at the outfall and saw the brown water. Police Chief Guy Osborne scooped up a sample in a bucket Otis bought at the hardware store.

Maxwell and Otis walked from the bridge to Highway 17 trying to trace the source of the odor wafting up from the catch basins along the North Causeway. The smell began in the basin at the west end of Pawleys Creekside Loop.

Travis Hutton, a Coast Guard petty officer first class, arrived and inspected the outfall in the fading afternoon light. He said diesel fuel would create a sheen over the creek.

At Town Hall, he looked at the sample and asked for a paper towel. He dipped the paper in the bucket and looked for any residue.

“It’s not oil,” he said. “If it was oil it would leave a stain.”

He said the liquid resembles “an organic leachate,” and said the color and smell are like those found by discharges from paper mills. Print and dying operations have similar by-products.

Linwood Altman, owner of Pawleys Island Realty, owns the property between Highway 17 and Creekside Loop. He reported smelling diesel in the ditch along the North Causeway “at least 10 years ago,” he said.

DHEC drilled monitoring wells on the property, but never located the source.

The smell usually follows heavy rains, which makes Maxwell believe the rise in groundwater level causes the unknown substance to rise to the surface.

It’s possible that the brown liquid flowing into the creek is just stormwater colored by decaying vegetation, but a degraded petroleum product would have the same color.

“Knowing what it is is the key,” Maxwell said. “Hopefully we’ll get those results back quickly.”

He believes it is a petroleum product.

“I’m just going by my sniffer at this point, and my experience,” Maxwell said.

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