February 20, 2014

EPA smacks repeat offender for more SC environmental violations

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced action Thursday against a utility corporation whose companies have a legacy of sewage spills and green law violations across South Carolina.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced action Thursday against a utility corporation whose companies have a legacy of sewage spills and green law violations across South Carolina.

Utilities Inc. was hit with a notice of violation for what authorities said were 27 sewage leaks in the Tega Cay-Rock Hill area during the past year. The leaks released nearly a half million gallons of raw sewage, the EPA said.

Thursday’s violation notice did not include any penalties, but suggested the possibility of fines if Utilities Inc. does not comply with a Feb. 3 state enforcement order to clean up its act in the suburban Charlotte region of South Carolina. The EPA said it would monitor for compliance with the order.

“Until they come into compliance, the company is still considered in violation of the law and subject to enforcement action, including penalties,” EPA spokeswoman Davina Marraccini said Thursday.

In a follow up email to The State newspaper early Friday, Marraccini said the EPA got involved to help the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control stop the sewage overflows. At least 18 were to U.S. waters, the EPA says.

“After receiving numerous citizen complaints, we consulted with DHEC and identified a number of” sewage spills that led the agency to jointly inspect Utilities Inc. facilities in the Tega Cay area, she said. “Though the state has taken its own enforcement action, EPA’s (action) puts Utilities, Inc. on notice that we will be closely monitoring them to ensure compliance.’’

The EPA’s enforcement notice, obtained Friday by The State, said Utilities Inc. “has a reactive maintenance approach rather than a firm preventive maintenance program’’ for its sewer system at Tega Cay near Charlotte. The order said Utilities Inc.’s Tega Cay Water Service had violated the federal Clean Water act.

Rick Durham, a Utilities Inc. executive, declined comment Thursday, saying he had not seen the EPA’s enforcement notice. He has said in the past that his company acquired some failing systems and it has taken time to upgrade them.

The EPA’s action is of interest across South Carolina, where Utilities Inc.’s environmental record stands out when compared to other companies and governments.

Utilities Inc. and its companies have been the subject of more environmental enforcement cases than any other business or government in South Carolina during the past two decades, The State newspaper reported in October.

Among the Utilities Inc. holdings are Carolina Water Service, which operates in the Columbia and Georgetown areas, and Tega Cay Water Service, the subject of Thursday’s EPA enforcement action. Overall, the company provides water or sewer service to more than 23,000 locations in South Carolina.

Since 1993, state regulators have sanctioned the company and its subsidiaries 55 times and levied more than $600,000 fines for environmental violations. The company’s troubles are part of larger issue in South Carolina, where state efforts to enforce environmental laws haven’t stopped hundreds of companies from violating the law multiple times, the newspaper reported in October.

EPA officials declined Thursday to say if federal enforcement action would be taken against other Utilities Inc., companies, but Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the EPA’s violation notice is a positive step.

“We know Utilities Inc. ... has several wastewater systems in the state that have serious problems, so I’m glad the EPA is paying attention to some of these,” Stangler said. “Tega Cay has certainly been an ongoing issue.”

Stangler’s organization is threatening to sue Utilities Inc. over what it says are repeated violations of wastewater discharge laws from a Carolina Water Service treatment plant on Interstate 20 near Columbia. The Congaree Riverkeeper group filed notice two months ago that it would sue the company for violation of the federal Clean Water Act. It currently is negotiating with the company.

DHEC’s Feb. 3 enforcement action gave the company a schedule to fix problems that have led to sewage spills in the Lake Wylie area. The company was given a month to patch the system to stop leaks and two years to finish system upgrades. DHEC levied a $136,000 fine.

EPA officials said they would keep watch on the company’s progress in making improvements to its wastewater treatment plant and sewer lines.

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