Industrial poisons found in Columbia-area sewers

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Cancer-causing industrial chemicals have been found in the sewers at a Columbia-area restaurant as a state investigation of illegal dumping expands from the Upstate to the Midlands, where utility officials scrambled this week to learn more about the threat to central South Carolina.

The concern is whether PCBs flowed from wastewater treatment plants into rivers or if sewer sludge with elevated PCB-levels was dumped in landfills or used to fertilize farm fields.

Banned more than three decades ago by the federal government, PCBs recently have been found in a string of Upstate wastewater treatment plants that discharge into rivers. The materials are considered probable human carcinogens if people are exposed in sufficient amounts. One threat from PCBs is contaminated fish people eat from rivers, some of which accept treated sewage.

State regulators said Wednesday they have no evidence that any rivers have been contaminated or that drinking water is unsafe, but they are investigating reports that someone, perhaps a sludge hauler, illegally discharged material containing PCBs into manholes and restaurants’ grease traps.

Wednesday’s revelation of PCBs in Richland County broadened the area of concern and had local officials preparing to take action.

“Whoever is doing this has got to be an idiot,” said Larry Brazell, director of the East Richland Public Service District. “This could be big. If they’ve dumped enough of it, it could be bad. And where are they getting it from? This stuff should have been out of here since” since the 1970s.

Sewer systems, including ones operated by Columbia and the East Richland Public Service District, planned to check sludge and wastewater for signs of PCBs, utility officials said. East Richland has done some testing, while Columbia – which operates the state’s largest wastewater plant – planned visual inspections to look for an oily sheen in wastewater that would indicate PCBs.

Local utilities also planned to warn commercial customers to be on the look out for anyone who might appear to be illegally dumping pollutants into storm drains or manholes. Officials with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control met earlier this week with local utility officials to discuss the potential threat and actions that could be taken.

Columbia and East Richland, like other treatment plants across South Carolina, do not routinely test for PCBs because the materials have been banned since 1979. They were once used as insulating fluids in electrical transformers and in vacuum pumps and compressors, but have not been manufactured in decades.

PCBs, however, can persist for years in the environment and old polluted industrial sites can contain the materials. In the Upstate, investigators suspect some of the PCBs found in sewer plants came from an old textile mill that is undergoing a cleanup. In the Columbia area, PCBs also are being cleansed from a site in the Irmo area.

“This chemical is bad news,” Columbia city wastewater engineer Bill Davis said. “PCBs tend to absorb into the sediment, into the foliage and other things around the banks, and in the mud – and they just stay.”

DHEC said in a statement Wednesday it is broadening the PCB probe and issuing emergency regulations to prevent the disposal of sludge on farm fields or in landfills if the material contains “quantifiable levels of” PCBs. Small amounts have previously been allowed for such disposal practices. Agency officials said they’re looking into “criminal activity.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is involved.

“DHEC is seeking to prevent illegally dumped PCBs from being reintroduced into the environment,” the agency said in a news release Wednesday. “The regulation applies to the land application of sludge from wastewater treatment systems, including but not limited to municipal wastewater treatment facilities, industrial wastewater treatment facilities, septage from septic tank management and grease trap waste from interceptor tanks serving facilities such as restaurants.”

Records show that “high levels” of PCBs and several other industrial toxins were reported late last week in the sewer system at 119 Sparkleberry Lane, home to a McAlister’s Deli.

According to the federal National Response Center, the toxins also contaminated a vacuum truck when it pumped out a grease trap at the Sparkleberry address. Other toxins included benzene, a cancer-causing material similar to PCBs, and tetrachloroethylene, a dry-cleaning material. The concern is not to restaurant food, but that the material showed up in a system that discharges to public waterways.

McAlister’s issued a statement Thursday morning saying the Sparkleberry restaurant will remain open since the county has determined the restaurant, its food and its sewer water are safe.

“ We are working closely with the county, EPA and other agencies to remedy this situation as these groups are investigating the possibility of a third-party illegally dumping in the state,’’ the statement said. “We are following all guidelines provided to ensure our systems have been cleaned and cleared of any improper chemicals. Since this incident is being linked to other cases across the state, we are fully cooperating with the authorities as they investigate and hopefully prosecute those responsible.’’

No one could explain this week, however, how a long-banned substance could wind up in the sewer system at a restaurant. There is concern that someone at some point dumped PCBs into restaurant grease traps around the state. PCBs from industrial cleanups likely would have to go to a hazardous-waste landfill in Alabama, but disposal fees at the landfill are high. DHEC has suspended the license of one Upstate septic tank service as the probe continues.

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the discovery of PCBs in the Columbia area is a potentially painful threat to rivers that flow through the capital city. Although PCBs tend to bind up in soils and might be more likely to pollute sewer sludge than wastewater, Stangler said there’s no guarantee. He worries that they could wash through sewer plants and into waterways.

“It is extremely concerning,” Stangler said. “It looks like it has got the same signature as in the Upstate. There is a reason this stuff has been illegal since 1979. It’s really, really nasty stuff.”

PCBs are enough of a concern in two major South Carolina lakes that DHEC has issued advisories against eating certain fish. Three years ago, DHEC issued an advisory against eating some types of fish from Lake Wateree after a national study determined that some species contained unsafe levels of the toxin. No one knows where the PCBs came from, but some have said it might have been from power companies that relied on the material decades ago.

PCB contamination at Lake Hartwell near Anderson has existed for about four decades and is believed to be tied to discharges from an industrial plant.

Brazell said much of the sludge generated at sewer plants in the Columbia-area goes to landfills, rather than as fertilizer for crop fields. But Dave Cole, a Chester-area resident fighting sludge disposal on fields in his community, said the PCB findings make him wonder if they might show up in more places across the state.

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