Saying “it’s a shame’’ the public was kept in the dark about a massive potato farm along a scenic river, a statewide conservation group called Tuesday for a public meeting to discuss the farm and its potential effect on the Edisto River’s South Fork.
The Conservation Voters of South Carolina asked supporters to contact Gov. Nikki Haley and Department of Health and Environmental Control director Catherine Templeton to ask for a public airing of the farm’s plan.
But DHEC indicated Tuesday it won’t do that because state law doesn’t call for a hearing on proposals by farms to withdraw large volumes of water from rivers, as is planned along the South Fork of the Edisto.
A Michigan agribusiness wants to take up to 9.6 billion gallons of water annually from the Edisto’s South Fork as part of its effort to irrigate thousands of acres of potato fields in central Aiken and Barnwell counties, about an hour’s drive southwest of Columbia.
DHEC approved water withdrawals from the farm’s first phase last spring without telling the public or giving anyone a chance to appeal the decision, which it says is not required. The department now is considering a second phase in Barnwell County, but has not made a decision yet. It also has not formally notified the public about the second part of the farm.
Between the two Walther Farms sites, the farm would cover parts of about 5,000 acres. Potato farming in South Carolina has historically been small, covering no more than several hundred acres until Walther’s entry into the state.
Environmentalists and community residents fear the withdrawals will sharply reduce water levels in the narrow river, which contains the headwaters of the ACE Basin nature preserve in the Lowcountry. Several river flow experts have said the withdrawal appears to be large for such a small river, but DHEC says a study it conducted found that the river could handle withdrawals for the first phase of the farm.
Ann Timberlake, the conservation voters’ director, said DHEC should meet with the public before approving the second section of the potato farm.
“It’s a shame for all parties, including the owners of the farm, that the process did not begin with an open conversation with local communities and stakeholders,’’ Timberlake wrote in an email blast.
“We fault DHEC for interpreting its regulations too narrowly. The future of the iconic Edisto River – our very own river – is at risk.’’
Walther Farms executive Jason Walther was not available Tuesday afternoon. In an email to The State, DHEC officials said they are simply going by a 2010 state law that was thoroughly vetted in the Legislature over a period of four years.
While the department said it is “always liberal” in its willingness to hold public meetings, that would not matter in this case because the law doesn’t allow DHEC to use public comment on an agricultural application.
“The law, as passed by the General Assembly, specifically exempts agriculture and DHEC does not have authority to contravene the General Assembly or the statutes they pass,’’ the department’s statement said.
Some conservationists say the law should be changed to provide public notice.