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DHEC finds oil under causeway

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A team of state investigators this week found what they believe will prove to be some form of petroleum product in the groundwater along the North Causeway to Pawleys Island.

It will be at least three weeks before samples can be tested and the results analyzed, said Thom Berry, media director for the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and one of nine agency staff who conducted the on-site investigation.

The agency started investigating late last month after a call from Pawleys Island Mayor Bill Otis reporting a “diesel” smell and dark brown water flowing from a newly completed drainage system’s outfall into Pawleys Creek.

Tests of samples taken from the catch basins were inconclusive. The new samples, taken 9 feet below the edge of the road between Pawleys Island Realty and Pawleys Island Supplies, will provide more levels of data, said Steve Burdick of DHEC’s division of waste assessment.

The tests will look for compounds that are the subject of federal health standards. Of the hundreds of chemical compounds contained in gasoline, for instance, only a few are subject to those standards, Burdick explained.

In the earlier tests, the substance was well below any federal health limits, Berry said. “What we may be seeing is very old product that has broken down,” he said. The smell “may be some that hasn’t broken down.”

Construction of the drainage system by Georgetown County earlier this year may have altered the groundwater flow, causing the odor to waft through the concrete pipes, he said.

Burdick and Chuck Arnold, also from the division of waste assessment, used an “organic vapor analyzer” to search for the presence of hydrocarbons in the drainage system.

“It’s basically an electronic sniffer,” said Berry.

It tracked the heaviest concentration of the odor to the corner of the North Causeway and Pawleys Creekside Loop behind the real estate office, where owner Linwood Altman reported smelling the odor at least a decade ago.

“I find that fascinating,” Burdick said as Arnold called out the readings from the analyzer he carried by a strap slung over one shoulder.

While the smell appears concentrated in the storm drains, they got a high reading from a cracked plastic pipe that runs along the gravel drive and empties into a catch basin.

DHEC has a record of leaking fuel from underground tanks at the former Marlow’s Store, now Frank’s Restaurant, that dates to the late 1980s. A series of monitoring wells were installed at the southeast corner of Highway 17 and the North Causeway in 2000.

The high concentration of the odor at Creekside Drive may be because it is a low spot that would trap old fuel that has seeped into the groundwater which flows from the highway toward the creek, said Matt Maxwell, a DHEC environmental manager.

Once the substance is identified, the agency will try to determine how much is in the groundwater and what to do about it. If there is no health concern, the origins of the substance becomes a moot point, Berry said.

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