Mega farm wants lawsuit dismissed, says it will supply 36 million pounds of spuds

sfretwell@thestate.comJanuary 21, 2014 

An ariel of a portion of the future 3,700-acre potato farm. A mega potato farm planned for Aiken and Barnwell counties has citizens in the area worried it could deplete the South Fork of the Edisto River.

THE STATE — FILE PHOTOGRAPH

— Michigan potato farmers who are embroiled in a dispute over large water withdrawals in South Carolina are seeking to dismiss a court challenge that they say threatens a successful harvest this spring.

Walther Farms says it has contracts to supply 36 million pounds of potatoes from a sprawling new Aiken County site, but the company needs to resolve the legal dispute soon, as planting season is approaching, court records show. The company has asked the S.C. Administrative Law Court to toss out a case against its withdrawals from the Edisto River’s South Fork.

Walther has state permission to suck billions of gallons of water from the South Fork for irrigation. The mega farm, being planted on parts of 5,200 acres, would be the largest potato-growing operation in South Carolina.

Friends of the Edisto, which appealed a state decision allowing the withdrawals, says the river is too small to handle the siphoning. And many Aiken County residents say the loss of water could hurt wildlife and recreation on the South Fork.

But in its response to the legal challenge, filed last week, Walther Farms said South Carolina’s water withdrawal law doesn’t allow for appeals, and even if it did, Friends of the Edisto filed its appeal too late. Walther wants what is known as an expedited hearing on its request to dismiss the case.

“To allow this contested case to proceed along a non-expedited track may have a significant negative impact on Walther Farms,” the company’s Jan. 16 response to the appeal said.

Walther’s court filing last week provides some new details about the operation, which would be on two sites in Aiken and Barnwell counties. According to Walther’s filing, the company has committed significant resources to the farm, which is why it needs to plant in March to “have a successful harvesting season.”

The company says its investments include clearing land, building a water intake station, buying an irrigation system, buying fertilizers, pesticides and tractors, and hiring employees.

Walther last week offered to scale back some of the withdrawals to resolve the legal dispute, but environmentalists weren’t ready to accept the offer. They met over the weekend, but water withdrawal opponent Doug Busbee said no decision was made on whether to accept the compromise.

Walther executives, who hired the prestigious McNair law firm to represent them, have not responded to requests by The State for interviews. An attempt to reach a McNair lawyer was unsuccessful Tuesday.

Walther’s water withdrawals have been a matter of scrutiny since they became public late in 2013. A recent public meeting drew more than 300 people, mostly to complain about the farm’s potential impact on the river. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources also has raised concerns, but the Department of Health and Environmental Control says the river can handle the withdrawals. Friends of the Edisto has challenged DHEC’s approval of the withdrawals.

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