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Pawleys Creek: Lab tests don't offer quick answer to source of diesel odor

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Results from lab tests of stormwater that gave off an odor of diesel fuel as it flowed into Pawleys Creek this month still have not identified the source of the smell.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control began an investigation Sept. 30 following a call from Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis. It was his second call to the agency about the smell and it followed a week of heavy rain.

DHEC teams investigated underground storage tanks and possible groundwater contamination in the area. A sample of the stormwater, which created a dark brown plume as it flowed from an outfall into Pawleys Creek, was sent to the agency’s lab in Columbia.

“The preliminary results are inconclusive,” Otis said. “They’re not sure what it is.”

He spoke with Matt Maxwell, an environmental manager from the Office of Environmental Quality Control, earlier this week. The investigation is still under way, he said.

“We’ve got the data set back,” said Adam Myrick, a spokesman for the agency. “We’re still looking at it and reviewing it. We have made some progress.”

The tests received a high priority because of the potential impact on Pawleys Creek. And it’s still a priority, Myrick said.

“We really don’t have anything conclusive,” he said.

The fact that the substance can’t be easily identified in the lab likely means it isn’t diesel fuel, Otis was told.

That was the conclusion reached by a member of the Coast Guard’s oil spill response team. Petty Officer First Class Travis Hutton was part of the initial response to Otis’ call. He dipped a paper towel in a sample of the stormwater and said it didn’t stain the way diesel would. Hutton also said there was no telltale sheen on the creek surface that would typically be associated with an oil spill.

Until DHEC can identify what is causing the smell, it will be hard for investigators to figure out where it’s coming from.

“It can be a very lengthy process,” Maxwell said last week. “It’s difficult to trace back when things are coming from an underground source.”

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