Conservation

Sewage disposal plan threatens hidden Lexington County paradise

Debate focuses on north branch of Edisto in Lexington County

tflach@thestate.comFebruary 11, 2013 

Floating on a quiet river along the southwest border of Lexington County is a favorite pastime for Bob Guild.

The north branch for the Edisto River is his hidden paradise. “If you’re looking for solitude, there’s nothing better,” Guild says.

But a plan could put more sewage – much of it from upstream chicken farms in Saluda County – into the quiet dark water.

“This is a really pristine river,” Guild said. “More waste would damage it.”

[Video: Scroll to the bottom of this story to watch a short video about the Edisto and attorney Bob Guild's efforts]

His worry is centered on a request from Saluda County officials to install 12 miles of sewer lines along the west edge of Lake Murray that would carry sewage to nearby Batesburg-Leesville for disposal and subsequent release into the river.

The partnership between county and town officials would set the stage for replacing leaky septic tanks in scattered neighborhoods, supporters say. It also is key to draw new growth to the mostly rural area to the southwest of Lake Murray.

Taking in waste from two major farms and a slaughterhouse – major agricultural industry in the area – is the only way to make the $6 million project affordable, officials say.

But environmental and sports groups are concerned that poultry waste would overwhelm the Batesburg-Leesville facility that would handle its disposal, imperiling fish and other aquatic life in the river.

It also could result in increased pollution along the north branch of a river that is the headwaters of the ACE Basin, a vast natural preserve of rice fields and lazy rivers in the Low country, they say.

The protests – supported by some town officials – are giving Batesburg-Leesville leaders second thoughts about the project.

Batesburg-Leesville will withdraw if the threat to the river can’t be resolved, Mayor James Wiszowaty says.

“Those complaints called things to our attention that we weren’t aware of,” he said. “This project is on life support unless the problems can be cleared up.”

Saluda County officials agree modifications in the plan are warranted.

“We thought it was okay, but environmentalists talk differently,” said Jerry Strawbridge, chairman of the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority. “I don’t want to mess up the environment in any kind of way.”

The hookup proposed from Saluda County to Batesburg-Leesville could double the sewage the town typically handles daily to 1.8 million gallons, with more than half the increase from poultry operations.

It’s too much wastewater for the narrow river to absorb, environmentalists and paddlers say.

Most of the poultry sewage now is piped 25 miles southwest to a much larger disposal plant near Aiken, a more expensive source of disposal for Saluda County.

State environmental officials are skeptical of the plan, warning recently that Batesburg-Leesville “does not have the capacity for this project as proposed.”

The comment came in a series of questions the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control raised about the plan.. DHEC’s final decision is likely by spring.

State natural resources officials echo concerns that the town sewage disposal facility is inadequate.

Hormones and antibiotics used to produce disease-free and uniform-size poultry are common in agricultural sewage, DNR said in a recent letter outlining concerns. Such chemicals washed into rivers used for disposal have been linked to mutations in amphibians.

The main answer suggested to lower problems is creation of artificial wetlands, using wastewater from it to irrigate farms and golf courses.

Environmentalists say the idea has possibilities, but it’s unclear if it is practical and affordable.

Strawbridge is hopeful that the project will gain the go-ahead after revision.

“We’re sitting here wondering what we’re going to do if we’re not able to do this,” he said.

The sewage disposal plan is the second joint effort on utility service by Batesburg-Leesville and Saluda County.

It follows an earlier venture to bring in more drinking water for both areas from Lake Murray.

Wastewater from the town facility – opened in 1973 and periodically updated – flows into creeks that empty 10 miles south into the river.

It’s the only source of manmade pollution going into the Edisto River from its origin near the town of 5,400 residents on the western edge of Lexington County until the river reaches Orangeburg, 60 miles southeast.

Even if abandoned, the sewage deal could come back to haunt Batesburg-Leesville.

Environmentalists intend to press for tighter controls on wastewater that the town sewage facility is allowed already to release into the river.

Guild, one of the state’s most well-versed environmental lawyers, is advising opponents on strategy as state officials consider Saluda County’s request.

He is among those wanting the river to remain a relaxing spot without its health being jeopardized.

Paddling it is akin to being in a wilderness less than 30 miles from downtown Columbia, he said.

“It’s nature at its best,” Guild said. “It’s the essence of South Carolina.”


Don't see the video? Some mobile devices might not support this video asset. Try clicking here.

There is fear that the Edisto River may get polluted from chicken farms. (Video by R. Darren Price)

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483. Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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