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Pawleys Creek: Probe of diesel smell has more questions than answers

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

More samples and more tests have left state environmental officials with more questions about the diesel smell that rose from the stormwater flowing from the North Causeway into Pawleys Creek after heavy rains last month. Answers are still missing.

“Even though there may be a petroleum-type odor, when we tried to take samples with absorbent pads, nothing would stick,” said Thom Berry, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Lab tests “are not showing the things we would expect to see with petroleum products.”

The diesel smell was first reported to DHEC by Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis early in the summer. He called the agency again in late September when the smell returned and the stormwater flowing into the creek had turned a dark brown.

The stormwater flows through a drainage system installed by Georgetown County earlier this year.

State and federal staff that responded to a possible oil spill in September smelled the diesel odor in the catch basins and at the outfall into the creek, but not in the ditches that run along the side streets.

“We will be talking with Georgetown County officials about their storm drainage system; where it is, how it works,” Berry said.

Other DHEC staff have reviewed reports on underground storage tanks at the intersection of the North Causeway and Highway 17. Monitoring wells were installed on the southeast side of the intersection after Linwood Altman, who owns the property, reported a diesel odor to DHEC in 2000. No leaks were found, Altman said.

DHEC staff will take another look at those wells, Berry said.

The samples from the stormwater were tested for “total petroleum hydrocarbons” or THP. There are hundreds of chemical compounds that originate with crude oil.

“We thought we would start with THP. That would seem the more logical, based on the odors,” Berry said.

When there were any results, they were “barely detectable or well below any contamination standards,” he said.

Investigators aren’t sure the dark color of the stormwater is related to the diesel smell, Berry said.

Finding the source of the smell, if it is in the groundwater, will be difficult, investigators say. Tracking an odor is equally hard.

“Odor complaints are always difficult to follow,” Berry said. “Sometimes they’re gone before you get back.”

The DHEC lab is doing further analysis and staff will continue to gather information in the field.

“We’re staying on it,” Berry said.

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