Cleaning up tainted SC textile site to cost taxpayers millions, take decades of work

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is launching efforts to clean up contamination at an abandoned industrial plant in eastern South Carolina that is blamed for polluting groundwater, wetlands, rivers and nearby agricultural fields.

But cleaning up the mess could take decades, and not everyone is happy about the deliberate pace of the cleanup proposed for the Galey and Lord site along the Great Pee Dee River.

All told, it could take 10 to 20 years to do the work, according to the EPA. The full cost to taxpayers is not known, but such cleanups easily can cost the public millions of dollars. The EPA has spent about $4 million, so far, at the 235-acre Galey and Lord site.

The EPA says it must study the contamination in more detail than it has done previously, then come up with a long-term cleanup plan. Once that is done, work to rid pollution from the site and surrounding agricultural fields would begin.

EPA officials updated the public on the cleanup during a meeting this past week in Darlington County, where the abandoned textile factory is located. They said they will need time to assess and resolve the environmental problems.

“It’s more likely that it’s going to be greater than 10 years by the time we are at a point where we have remediated everything,’’ EPA cleanup project manager Chris Jones told The State, noting that it could be another decade before the site is removed from the agency’s Superfund cleanup list, which prioritizes cleanups of some of the most contaminated places in the country.

The Galey and Lord plant, a textile finishing factory in the small community of Society Hill, is fast-becoming a focal point in South Carolina for pollution from an emerging class of toxic chemicals known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS..

Commonly called forever chemicals, the toxins have been found on the property, as well as on nearby agricultural fields that received waste sludge from Galey and Lord for parts of 20 years to use as fertilizer. Forever chemical exposure has been tied to cancer, thyroid problems, high cholesterol and suppressed immune systems in people exposed over time.

Galey and Lord, which shut down in 2016 after declaring bankruptcy, had provided sludge for about 10,000 acres of agricultural fields, The State reported in July. Forever chemicals like those found in the sludge fertilizer are now showing up in drinking water wells on and around farms, the newspaper reported. Some people who live in the area say they’ve gotten sick after drinking the water for years.

Efforts by The State to locate a representative who could speak for Galey and Lord have been unsuccessful.

After identifying environmental problems at Galey and Lord, the EPA conducted an emergency cleanup in 2019 to stop the most immediate contamination threats, such as barrels of toxic materials. The EPA removed more than 2,000 containers and more than 100,000 gallons of flammable liquids from the factory.

Despite the effort, contaminated areas were left to be addressed on the property and in agricultural fields. A variety of toxic pollutants were found in groundwater, wetlands, creek sediment and sewer sludge. Some of the biggest pollutants of concern are forever chemicals.

Among the polluted parts of the industrial site are those that include sludge basins, sand drying beds, soil, abandoned tanks — some of which “lack containment elements,’’ the EPA says. The EPA is now focusing on the remaining areas of pollution at Galey and Lord. It has listed the Galey and Lord factory site on the government’s Superfund cleanup priorty list.

“It took 10 or 20 years for this to happen so I reckon it will take 10 to 20 years for it to be cleaned up,’’ said an exasperated Robbie O’Neal, a 58-year-old farmer whose family used sludge from Galey and Lord as fertilizer only to learn years later that the factory’s sludge was contaminated.

O’Neal said he couldn’t understand why the EPA can’t clean up spots where it knows contamination exists, while it conducts more detailed studies on the full extent of the pollution.

“Why do we have to have years of testing ... when they already know it is contaminated?’’ he asked. “Go ahead and start with what you think is contaminated.’’

Often, Superfund cleanups begin because the owners of contaminated land have gone out of business and are unable, or unwilling, to do the cleanup work. If a responsible party can’t be found to shoulder some of the costs, taxpayers must fund the cleanup work. It is not unusual for cleanup efforts to take years.

The abandoned Galey and Lord textile plant in Society Hill is a polluted federal Superfund cleanup site.
The abandoned Galey and Lord textile plant in Society Hill is a polluted federal Superfund cleanup site.

While the Galey and Lord cleanup is a long-term project, the agricultural fields that received sludge as fertilizer might take even longer than 10 to 20 years to cleanup, if federal officials deem that is necessary. The fields are not part of the EPA’s current cleanup effort on the Galey and Lord site. They could be included in that effort later or become their own Superfund site, Jones said.

Brady Hill, a 39-year-old Society Hill resident, said the proposed cleanup plan needs to focus on agricultural fields that received Galey and Lord sludge. But he also worries that storms could wash pollution from the plant property into the Great Pee Dee River. Fish in parts of the river have been found with forever chemicals and mercury in their flesh.

“There’s a lot of stuff carried out of there when we get a hurricane that floods into the river,’’ he said after the EPA’s informational meeting.

The EPA’s meeting on the cleanup effort drew more than 40 people, many of them offering pointed questions about how pollution from the abandoned industrial site was affecting their community, their drinking water and their health.

Some left Wednesday’s meeting frustrated that their questions were not answered about the health implications. O’Neal said the EPA was unable to give advice that he needs.

“I asked them specifically about the water that my cows were drinking and the crops I’m growing and asked if I was going to kill anybody by growing them,’’ he said Thursday. ‘They could not answer that.’’