COLUMBIA, SC — Amid concerns that someone is illegally dumping toxins in public sewers, the city of Columbia issued an advisory Thursday asking restaurant owners to protect their wastewater systems from becoming disposal sites for unscrupulous people.
The city urged restaurants and other businesses to watch for suspicious activity, make sure surveillance cameras work properly and lock grease traps to prevent illicit disposal by outsiders. The city also urged businesses with such devices not to share them with others to prevent contamination.
All told, more than 650 restaurants and businesses with grease traps were being notified. At issue is whether devices that collect restaurant grease have become targets for discharging PCBs and other poisonous chemicals, which are being found in the Upstate and more recently in northeastern Richland County.
PCBs, which likely cause cancer, are not supposed to be discharged to restaurant grease traps or into public sewers. In most cases, hazardous waste must be disposed of in an approved landfill, such as one in Alabama. But dumping fees at such sites can be high and questions have arisen about whether shady operators are cutting corners and discharging for free to public sewer systems and restaurant grease traps.
“If you see anybody who might be a little too interested in your grease trap, contact CrimeStoppers right away,” city utilities spokeswoman Victoria Kramer said, referring to the law enforcement tip line. “There have been problems in the Midlands and in the Upstate from culprits who seem to be dumping an oily substance known as PCBs.”
Thursday’s notice follows revelations this week that a criminal investigation of toxic disposal in the Upstate now includes the Columbia area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control are heading the probe. PCBs have tainted a string of sewer plants in the Greenville-Spartanburg area, but those plants are smaller than Columbia’s, the state’s largest.
The federal government banned PCBs in 1979 because of the health threats. A class of industrial chemicals, PCBs were once used as insulating fluids in electrical transformers and in vacuum pumps. In the past, authorities have determined that PCBs have contaminated fish in several parts of South Carolina, including lakes Wateree near Camden and Hartwell near Anderson. Studies have found that they are probable human carcinogens. People who regularly eat PCB-laden fish increase threats to their health.
So far, PCBs are not known to have been found in fish in the Congaree River, where Columbia discharges its wastewater.
Federal data show that a McAlister’s Deli on Sparkleberry Lane was discovered last week to have high levels of PCBs, benzene, tetrachlorethylene and other toxins in its grease trap. These traps collect and stop restaurant grease from clogging city sewer pipes. But liquids from the restaurants flow through to sewer pipes.
Kramer said she knew of no other restaurant in Columbia where PCBs have been found in a grease trap, although the extent of the problem is still unfolding.
State and city officials question whether PCBs have been dumped in grease traps, oozed into sewer lines and traveled to wastewater treatment plants, which discharge to rivers. Authorities aren’t concerned that PCBs in restaurant grease traps have affected food or water, but the threat to the sewer system and rivers is a worry. They also are concerned that grease that is cleaned from the traps and disposed of landfills or on farm fields contain toxins, such as PCBs.
McAlister’s issued a statement Thursday, saying the Sparkleberry restaurant will remain open since authorities have 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.”