A reporter and photographer visited the Recovery Ranch on Aug. 24, 2021, and witnessed two large modular homes engulfed in flames. Christa Reynolds, who ran the ranch, said the modular homes were in such poor condition that ranch leaders burned them down rather than move them to Dillon.
“They weren’t even safe, honestly, at that point to move, from a financial perspective, and the condition they were left in,” Reynolds said that day. “It made sense.”
Photographer Janet Morgan’s photos of the fires were published online in the story “‘Agape love’ or ‘Nightmare’? The rise and fall of the Loris Recovery Ranch” on Nov. 15. On Friday, three days after the story was published, DHEC office manager Shawn Williams emailed Morgan to ask about the ranch’s address, which is 950 Liberty Church Road, near Loris.
Your photographs of the burning of mobile homes included in the article: ‘Agape love’ or ‘Nightmare’? The rise and fall of the Loris Recovery Ranch have caused us to open an open burning investigation,” Williams wrote. “The intentional burning of structures is a potential violation of the Clean Air Act.”
Reynolds declined to comment on the specifics of the DHEC investigation but said she had already spoken with the agency.
DHEC spokesman Derek Asberry said the intentional burning of buildings is not allowed in South Carolina and DHEC does not issue permits for such activity. Instead, the structures should have been inspected for asbestos, demolished and disposed in a landfill, he said.
Another option, Asberry said, would have been to demolish the structures in a licensed asbestos landfill.
Generally speaking, air quality violations are referred to DHEC’s enforcement section for review, Asberry said, and “each case is evaluated individually based on severity and past compliance history. DHEC is allowed to assess civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day per violation. However, Most open burning cases result in smaller civil penalties for first offenses.
The August 2021 incident wasn’t the first time the ranch had been accused of illegal burning.
“DHEC received an anonymous complaint about trash burning at the site in 2019,” Asberry said in an email. “We sent a letter to the site explaining trash burning was prohibited, along with an open burning brochure to offer compliance assistance. No other open burning complaints have been received since the letter was sent in 2019.”
However, a February 2021 complaint to DHEC accused the site of having “ongoing illegal dumping and trash burning (including incineration of toxic substances. Plastic, rubber, wiring copper).” But the complaint was made through DHEC’s Bureau of Health Facilities Licensing, and DHEC said at the time it didn’t take any action against the ranch because it was not a licensed residential treatment facility subject to the agency’s oversight.
Also in 2021, DHEC received complaints related to septic tanks, stormwater and food preparation. DHEC “investigated all of them,” Asberry said. For two of the septic tank complaints, we required the site to make repairs. Those repairs were made. No stormwater or food preparation violations were found during our inspections.”