Saluda River pollution sparks legal threat

sfretwell@thestate.comNovember 5, 2013 

Bubbling up from a pipe in the Lower Saluda River at Saluda Shoals Park is treated sewage water. Brazilian Eleoda thrives in the nitrogen rich water. South Carolina's effort to enforce environmental laws hasn't stopped companies and government agencies from repeatedly breaking rules to protect the air, land and water during the past two decades. About 25 percent of the 4,600 businesses and governments cited for violating environmental laws since 1991 have done so multiple times, and in some cases, their failures to follow the rules are continuing today, according to civil enforcement records analyzed by The State newspaper.

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For two decades, environmentalists have pushed to end sewage discharges in the lower Saluda River, a picturesque waterway known for its churning rapids and unusual trout fishery.

Now, they’re taking on a private utility and government regulators for failing to stop some of the discharges – as promised – from a major wastewater plant in Lexington County.

The Congaree Riverkeeper organization, which also oversees the lower Saluda, issued a legal notice Monday that it will sue Carolina Water Service in the next 60 days if the company does not stop polluting the river and discharging from the wastewater plant at Interstate 20.

In its notice, the riverkeeper group blamed Carolina Water Service, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for allowing the discharges to continue, even though the company’s 1995 permit requires Carolina Water to close the plant and tie in with a regional system when the system becomes available. Regional sewage service has been available since 1999, the notice says.

The 60-day notice is part of a legal process that allows citizens to sue when they believe the government isn’t enforcing water pollution rules. Such suits, filed under the federal Clean Water Act, are not unheard of in South Carolina, but they also are not common.

To avoid getting sued, Carolina Water Service must make a binding commitment to end the discharges, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said.

Rick Durham, a regional vice president for Carolina Water’s parent company, was not available Monday afternoon for comment, but the company has said its discharges are treated and not a major threat to the environment.

Stangler, whose group is a river advocacy organization, disagreed.

“These guys are polluting the Saluda River, not meeting their permit limits, and they could solve this problem by tying in (to regional sewage), which they were supposed to do,’’ he said.

DHEC officials declined comment, although water bureau chief David Wilson noted that the I-20 treatment plant issue has been tied up in several court battles through the years.

Carolina Water Services’ plant releases wastewater near an I-20 bridge that crosses the river.

The sewage is supposed to be treated in accordance with its permit, but the riverkeeper has documents showing at least 19 occasions in the past four years where the wastewater plant has exceeded discharge limits. The violations are for fecal coliform, a bacteria that can signal the presence of disease-carrying organisms, and biochemical oxygen demand, substances that suck oxygen from water.

While environmentalists say pollution in any river is an issue, the Saluda is special in the Columbia-area.

Formed in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Saluda River cuts through the Upstate foothills to Lake Murray, then continues about 12 miles below the dam to the Broad River. The Broad and the Saluda rivers merge to form the Congaree.

Unlike the Broad and the Congaree rivers, the lower Saluda has whitewater rapids so challenging that kayakers routinely test their skills there. At the same time, the Saluda is cold enough to support a trout fishery, even though it is in a part of South Carolina where the popular sport fish typically have trouble surviving. And on a hot summer day, it’s common to see people swimming near exposed rocks in the lower Saluda to escape the heat. State officials also have designated the Saluda as an officially recognized scenic river.

Monday’s legal notice, filed for the riverkeeper by the Southern Environmental Law Center, reignites an issue that has been a point of debate since at least 1990: when and how to remove all wastewater discharges from the lower Saluda River.

A 1990 plan by a group of river advocates and others called for the end to all domestic discharges from the river. That plan later was incorporated into a 1997 plan by the Central Midlands Council of Governments that also says the discharges should end.

Doing that, however, has been difficult. Numerous discharges still occur in the river, in part because of resistance from utilities. At least a half-dozen wastewater plants still release treated sewage to the Saluda, Stangler said. A major sewage spill by one private utility about five years ago outraged Saluda River paddlers. The Alpine Utilities discharges sent river bacteria levels soaring, causing some paddlers to complain of illness.

During a 2009 regional wastewater meeting, a private utility executive whose company earned revenues from the plant’s operation said it’s not a simple task to close a sewage plant.

How much impact the riverkeeper’s legal action could have on discharges other than the one at I-20 is not yet known, but Stangler said it “does have broader implications.’’

The riverkeeper’s 60-day notice targets Carolina Water Service, a division of Utilities Inc. The national corporation’s companies in South Carolina have been hit with more than 50 enforcement orders by DHEC since the early 1990s. No other company in South Carolina was found to have that many violations between 1990 and early 2013, The State newspaper reported after analyzing DHEC’s enforcement data base.

But in this case, records show relatively few enforcement issues surrounding the I-20 wastewater treatment plant. That point was not lost on the Congaree Riverkeeper, whose legal action says DHEC hasn’t done enough to protect water quality in the Saluda from the I-20 plant.

The 60-day notice says Carolina Water service “is continually failing to comply with the effluent limitations and other conditions contained’’ in its discharge permit from DHEC

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