In a decision that could hasten closure of South Carolina’s largest sewage dump, the city of Cayce has agreed to treat human waste from backyard septic tanks at a new disposal site near the Congaree River.
City and state officials said Thursday that Cayce will build a special treatment plant to process septic tank sewage and restaurant grease like that now spread on the ground at the 287-acre C.E. Taylor site in southern Lexington County.
While some questions remain, there were indications Thursday that much of the waste hauled to the Taylor site could eventually wind up at the Cayce treatment plant.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is proposing to deny a new operating permit for the Taylor dump site at the same time it is providing Cayce with a $1 million grant to expand a treatment plant to process septic tank waste and restaurant grease.
“It is a big deal,” Cayce city manager Rebecca Rhodes said. “This is going to be a legitimate municipal system that will handle and treat this material to the same levels we treat our normal wastewater.’’
Once cleaned up, the septic tank waste would be discharged to the Congaree River.
Through the years, DHEC has criticized C.E. Taylor for what it says were questionable disposal practices. The Pelion dump has accepted more than 150 million gallons of human sewage and grease since opening in 1989, making it the busiest of nine sewage dumps in South Carolina, records show.
Residents of the Pelion area rely on wells for drinking water and some wells have shown nitrate contamination, although the source has not been directly linked to Taylor.
DHEC rarely turns down new operating permits. But in this case, the agency says continued operation of the Taylor site could pollute groundwater with unsafe levels of nitrates, contaminants associated with sewage that can kill babies. The dump sits atop a slick of nitrate-contaminated groundwater.
DHEC’s plan to deny the permit, which is not final and is subject to public comment, delighted Pelion area residents. They said DHEC has in the past done little to improve Taylor’s operation.
“I couldn’t stop smiling when I heard,’’ said Sandra Walker, who lives two-tenths of a mile from the Pelion sewage dump. “Someone has finally listened to us. Maybe there is an end to this.’’
Frank Taylor, whose company began using the Pelion site in 1989, declined to say if he would voluntarily close the dump or appeal DHEC’s decision. Taylor maintains the company did not pollute groundwater and the discharge area has been run cleanly.
But he said “I welcome Cayce taking it.”
“We got a place to dump sewer,’’ Taylor said. “It ain’t Frank Taylor’s place to provide sewer (disposal) for Lexington County. I caught nothing but hell for it for 23 years.’’
Cayce officials say that sometime in 2014 they will be able to accept about 100,000 gallons per day, but only from Lexington County.
Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, said he, Taylor and DHEC had been discussing the idea of Cayce accepting septic tank waste for some time. Some dump opponents had accused Knotts of meddling in DHEC affairs to protect Taylor, but Knotts said he was looking for another disposal site.
The C.E. Taylor Inc. dump has been a source of community outcries almost from the time it opened. For years, neighbors complained about odors and later questioned whether disposal was being done properly. DHEC continued to permit the operation and it eventually became the largest of nine sewage disposal grounds in South Carolina.
The waste was spread on the ground because sewer plants have been reluctant to take the material. Unlike sewage that runs through a municipal wastewater system, septic tank waste and restaurant grease are thicker and harder to treat.
Catherine Templeton, who became director of DHEC in March, said she urged staff members to make a decision on the disposal permit for the Pelion site. The Pelion permit is one of more than 500 backlogged air, water and land permits DHEC has not addressed. But she said the decision was based on science and she supports it. She said agency staffers have in the past felt pressured, in some cases by legislators.
“I’m not sure how often the (DHEC) scientists have been empowered to make the decision,’’ she said. “We asked them. They said ‘We don’t feel comfortable.’’’
Bob Guild, a Columbia lawyer who has handled DHEC permit cases for 30 years, praised the agency’s decision to propose denying the Taylor permit, saying it is rare for DHEC to take such action.
“Boy it sure is,’’ he said. “DHEC is very loathe to take into account the compliance history or track record of operations in deciding whether to turn down a facility.’’