Originally published December 5, 2008
State and federal officials are investigating allegations Columbia's wastewater treatment plant dumped raw sewage into the Congaree River and one of the city's contractors falsified records to cover it up, according to court documents.
About 20 DHEC and EPA agents raided the city's sewer plant at 8 a.m. Thursday, armed with a search warrant, weapons and wearing bulletproof vests -- just as parents were dropping off their children at nearby Heathwood Hall Episcopal School.
The investigation focuses on Columbia and Data Resources , a company that tests the levels of fecal coliform and toxins the city puts into the river from its Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant.
One of the owners of Data Resources is accused of changing the city's test results because he was worried he would lose Columbia as a client, a former employee said in a search warrant.
Shealy Environmental , one of Data Resources ' competitors, was giving the city "more favorable" results, according to the search warrant.
Shealy Environmental is not being investigated, officials said.
"We take the environmental issues that have been raised very seriously," Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said. "The city of Columbia and its Metro Wastewater Treatment Plant are cooperating fully with officials and with this investigation."
The wastewater treatment plant is downstream from the city's water plant, so any discharges would not affect drinking water.
A second former Data Resources employee, who told investigators he resigned from the company because "bad stuff" was going on, said he witnessed Columbia sewer employees "pretty much dumping untreated wastewater straight into the Congaree."
One of the Data Resources former employees said if the plant had extra wastewater, its workers would dump the water illegally in order to meet requirements for the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
The former employee said "he collected fecal samples at the plant and saw 'crap' floating in the bottle. He said once Data Resources , Inc. would test the sample, the results 'mysteriously' came back clean," according to the search warrant.
The former Data Resources employees also accused one of Columbia's sewer plant managers of having employees tamper with chlorine readings "once or twice per week" until they were within state and federal limits.
City manager Charles Austin said no city employee has been indicted or identified as a suspect.
State and federal agents searched Columbia's computer systems Thursday in an attempt to verify the former Data Resources ' employees' accusations.
The computer system collects data from sensors and machines in remote locations and sends them to a central computer, according to the search warrant.
Agents were copying those records Thursday.
A second group of agents raided Data Resources offices along Broad River Road. Bruce Watt, a co-owner of the company, said agents took accounting, payroll and employee records.
"We just gave them what they wanted," he said. "We have nothing to hide."
Watt said he did not know why agents with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the federal Environmental Protection Agency were investigating his company.
"They took the entire client database of reports we have on our server," Watt said. "It was not specific to any client."
John Dooley said the city has always reported when its discharges exceeded the toxin thresholds.
The threshold for some toxins is about 30 milliliters per liter, he said.
Dooley said the plant averages discharge levels below 10 milliliters per liter.
The city is required to submit a report to DHEC every month.
Documents at DHEC showed violations of chlorine levels in March and fecal coliform levels in April 2006. In July 2007, DHEC cited the plant for not performing its toxicity tests correctly.Bob Guild, a Columbia environmental lawyer who handles water pollution cases, said pollution violations at such a large plant potentially can affect peoples' health and the environment.
Self-reporting and self-monitoring are at the heart of the federal clean water laws, which DHEC enforces, Guild said.
"The only way the law is enforced is by mandating accurate reporting. The integrity of those records is critical to the process," Guild said.
Mike Dawson, head of the River Alliance, a nonprofit that works for public access to the Congaree and other local rivers, said it is important the public learn of any irregularities at the sewer plant.
"Keeping a healthy river is essential to keeping people in the river."
Staff writer John Monk contributed to this report.