Feds study likely impact of potato farm on SC wetlands

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 3, 2014 

Crews work on the piping system necessary to siphon up to 9.6 billion gallons of water needed annually to irrigate the mega potato farm. A mega potato farm planned for Aiken County, has citizens in the area worried it could deplete the South Fork of the Edisto River. Doug Busbee of Wagoner has spent years traveling up and down the Edisto River and is visibly upset by the disruption in the ecosystem.

FILE PHOTOGRAPH — The State Buy Photo

— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking into a massive potato farm’s potential impact on wetlands along the South Fork of the Edisto River.

Corps officials visited the property before Christmas after receiving a complaint from environmentalists upset about the farm, which plans to withdraw billions of gallons of water from the narrow river near Wagener, southwest of Columbia.

The federal agency, charged with overseeing development in swamps and wetlands, has made no determination on whether any wetlands violation occurred. Brice McKoy, the corps’ branch chief in Columbia, said his agency is still looking into questions by Friends of the Edisto River.

McKoy said, however, that some wetlands are exempt from regulation under a federal law that gives deference to farms that produce food. Walther Farms sought an exemption from regulation of some wetlands areas where work has been occurring along the river bank, he said. The corps granted that exemption, which covers less than one-tenth of an acre of wetlands.

But environmentalists have asked the corps to see whether any wetlands outside of those exempted were impacted, McKoy said.

“They believe there are some additional impacts, but I can’t confirm or deny that,” he said Friday.

Tim Rogers, who heads Friends of the Edisto, said the South Fork contains extensive wetlands and his group wants to make sure the environment isn’t hurt. Wetlands provide wildlife habitat, naturally filter tainted water and control flooding.

Walther Farms’ plan for the potato farm has created a stir in rural Aiken and Barnwell counties. The company plans to withdraw up to 9.6 billion gallons of water annually from the narrow South Fork of the Edisto for what will become the state’s largest potato farm. The company, headquartered in Michigan, has said its activity in South Carolina will be sensitive to the environment. An official was not available Friday to answer questions about wetlands.

Friends of the Edisto has appealed a Department of Health and Environmental Control decision allowing the water siphoning. DHEC says the river can withstand more than 6 billion gallons of withdrawals and is considering approving another withdrawal of more than 3 billion gallons annually. Friends of the Edisto says in its appeal that the agency’s data is flawed.

The department plans a public meeting Tuesday in Aiken County to discuss the water withdrawals and explain why it did not notify the public of the plan. The agency has said it isn’t required to do that under the state’s water withdrawal law, which contains some exemptions for farms.

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