AIKEN - Aiken County is hunting for environmentally contaminated sites such as former gasoline stations or dry cleaners in an attempt to make them economically profitable.
Officials are holding a series of public meetings across the county in hopes that residents will point out abandoned or blighted property that is possibly contaminated.
Local officials have $200,000 in federal money to combat the blight of abandoned property ignored by developers because of possible toxic contamination.
Part of the Environmental Protection Agency grant is being spent on a search for contaminants at the Seminole Mill site in Clearwater, which is known to have asbestos.
A contractor will take samples of soil and water from the burned-out building and 26-acre site next month to discover precisely where and what pollutants are there, said David Sykes, a project manager for Concurrent Technologies Corp. that is leading the assessment.
Another portion of the EPA money is going to compile an inventory of other less notorious brownfields, which are defined as properties that can't easily be developed because of complications caused by the presence of contamination.
Officials say they hope to complete the inventory with information gathered from residents.
Archie Lee, the chief of the EPA superfund program and state support branch for the Southeast, said the agency doesn't inventory brownfield sites partly because the official definition includes not only known but also suspected contaminated properties.
"So it leaves the door wide open as to what could potentially be a brownfield," he said.
He acknowledges that some owners of contaminated properties don't always want to claim ownership because of cleanup costs, as was the case with Seminole Mill, and also because it likely would devalue the property.
"There's a stigma associated with that, that there's a liability issue," Mr. Lee said. "And a lot of property owners are afraid of finding out their land is contaminated because of the effect on the property value."
Don Hauck knows all about property owners who try to escape their environmental responsibilities.
Mr. Hauck, who owns Lombard Corp. in Allendale, had to clear his name from the Seminole Mill property in court.
Earlier this year, a judge ruled that Charles E. Merritt owned the Seminole Mill property, a fact he had publicly denied. Mr. Merritt said his offer to buy the land in 1995 had fallen through, and that the mill was subsequently included in a 3,300-acre purchase by Mr. Hauck.
Last year Mr. Hauck discovered that Mr. Merritt had attempted to convey ownership of the property to him, and filed suit against Mr. Merritt. Mr. Hauck said the court ruled in his favor after Mr. Merritt did not file a response to the complaint within the allotted time.
"As far as we're concerned, we never were involved in it, and are not involved in it now, except we had to hire an attorney to show we didn't own the property," Mr. Hauck said.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has tried to make Mr. Merritt remove asbestos from the Seminole Mill property since the vacant facility was reduced to rubble in a 1996 fire.
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