WILLISTON, S.C. -- David Dortch has fond childhood memories of helping his father farm the sandy soil on their Barnwell County land.
"We played out here as kids," he said, walking through grassy fields studded with pines and oaks. "It was beautiful."
He never dreamed that decades later the site would fall under scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a candidate for the National Priority List of the nation's most dangerous waste sites.
The EPA got involved this summer in efforts to resolve an ongoing regulatory dispute between the town's biggest employer and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Mr. Dortch, who owns the 40 acres jointly with his siblings, welcomes the attention. But he fears any cleanup could still be years away.
"When you're poor, and out in the country, you're out of luck," he said. "I don't care who cleans this mess up, but I feel like a lot of different groups got their hand in it."
The source of concern is an abandoned sewage-treatment plant occupying about an acre in the center of the Dortch property.
Now shrouded with vines, the concrete tank was built in 1953 -- before Mr. Dortch's father bought the land -- to serve a mobile-home park for construction workers at Savannah River Plant.
Later, in 1964, a Revco subsidiary built Chill Chest -- a refrigerated appliance factory -- across the street. The plant hooked up to the wastewater system, which was designed only for residential waste.
During the next 18 years, the factory -- under various names -- discharged an estimated 688 million gallons of industrial sewage through an old easement into the Dortch property.
The final resting place for all that waste is a low, swampy area that drains into a small creek surrounded by springs.
Despite 17 years of inactivity, part of the swamp remains barren. "Nothing can grow in here," Mr. Dortch said. "It's like a desert."
The Department of Health and Environmental Control has voiced perennial concerns that heavy metals and other industrial wastes have migrated far beyond the swampy bog on the Dortch property.
In a 1992 site report, Craig Dukes of the state agency's Bureau of Solid and Hazardous Waste Management noted that contamination from metals was found as far as 4 1/2 miles downstream -- back in 1979.
"The site poses significant threats to both the environment and human health," he wrote.
Concerns also have been raised about threats to local wells.
"Williston and Elko both have public supply wells within 1.2 miles of the site," a 1989 state study reported. "It is estimated 6,000 people may be impacted through contamination of public and private wells within four miles."
THE CURRENT OWNERof the manufacturing plant -- Dixie-Narco -- doesn't believe a contamination hazard exists, but offered to remove the old concrete waste tank from the Dortch property.
"It seems to me it's gotten awfully confusing for something that's so simple," said Marty Shumpert, Dixie-Narco's environmental and facilities manager. "We were trying to do what was right."
The company's tests of the site reveal nothing hazardous, he said. "So unless there's something I'm not aware of, we're treating it as a nonhazardous situation."
Regardless of what's under the ground, Dixie-Narco inherited -- but didn't cause -- the situation, he added.
In 1982, the factory installed a pre-treatment system to remove metals and sludge from its wastewater, which was rerouted to Williston's town sewage system. Then the old waste tank was closed.
But before 1982, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control, wastewater from the plant's manufacturing, plating and painting processes went to an on-site waste lagoon and eventually to the tank on the Dortch property.
Also before 1982, solvents used to clean paint nozzles and appliance spray booths also were routed to the tank. Those solvents contained toluene, ether, xylene ethyl ketone and other compounds.
"As early as 1974, it was observed that the tank was unable to provide treatment for the type of wastewater generated by this plant," a state site screening inspector wrote in 1989.
After a decade of debate with Dixie-Narco and its predecessor, Admiral Home Appliances, state officials still believe the site needs more testing -- and may require a costly cleanup.
DIXIE-NARCO APPLIEDin December for a state permit to remove the old wastewater system, leaving the surrounding soil intact. The Department of Health and Environmental Control initially approved the plan, then revoked it in March.
"They had submitted a closure plan for domestic waste," said Tom Knight, manager of the state agency's Bureau of Water. "But it was industrial wastewater out there and we did not feel like the cleanup process would be complete."
Another matter of concern is the inactive waste lagoon on the plant property. Records indicate 172 drums of sludge from the plant were dumped into the lagoon in April 1983 instead of going to a landfill.
In June 1983, the Department of Health and Environmental Control recommended the plant clean up the lagoon and other areas, under the assumption they contained paint sludge and waste oils -- which fit the definition of hazardous waste.
The plant's response was "there is no analytical method to prove the existence of either substance in this waste" and therefore it cannot be described as hazardous, according to the agency's memos.
"So at this point, we still don't know what we're dealing with," Mr. Knight said. "There will probably need to be more tests done."
THE APPARENT IMPASSEbetween Dixie-Narco and the Department of Health and Environmental Control led state regulators to refer the matter to the Superfund section of the EPA's Region 4 office in Atlanta.
Transferring the case to the Superfund level is often a last resort, said Chuck Gorman, Superfund site assessment manager in the state's Bureau of Land and Waste Management.
"As long as the responsible party's working well, we keep going," he said. "But if they reach an impasse, they'll get in contact from the Superfund perspective."
State regulators asked EPA to evaluate the area for inclusion on the National Priority List of sites eligible for assistance through the Superfund program created by Congress to clean up hazardous areas.
The criteria EPA will collect and analyze includes soil, groundwater and surface water data, and the proximity of any contaminants to residents and sensitive environments. "This information will generate a score," Mr. Gorman said.
If any cleanup is needed, the state and EPA will attempt to compel any responsible party to undertake the cleanup with its own dollars. If that fails, cost-recovery attorneys take over.
Even with the Department of Health and Environmental Control's voluminous file on the Williston site, the evaluation is a lengthy procedure, said Dawn Harris, an EPA spokeswoman in Atlanta.
"What's going on is in the very beginning stages," she said. "It is being considered, but this early on it's hard to say whether it would be listed. We need to know what is there and what to clean up."
Williston Mayor Thomas Rivers doubts there are threats to the municipal water supply. He said he is confident Dixie-Narco -- a major employer with 1,700 jobs -- will resolve any problems.
"They said they would take responsibility and clean it up themselves," Mr. Rivers said. "They informed us they were willing to do it themselves and we believe they will."
Dixie-Narco is still willing to remove the old tank, but will have to await the EPA's findings before anything can happen, Mr. Shumpert said.
"Once we get word back from them, we'll know what to do," Mr. Shumpert said. "At this point, we're in limbo."
But any major cleanup of soil or water, he said, would be a different story. "We got funds to remove the old tank, but it's not my place to rebuild a swamp."