A utility whose sewage discharges prompted no swimming advisories on the lower Saluda River last summer faces a nearly $80,000 state fine for allowing poorly treated wastewater to flow into the river.
State regulators sanctioned Carolina Water Service for what they said was a failure to properly clean up the sewage before releasing it into the river near Irmo’s Saluda Shoals Park. The utility did not keep bacteria levels within safe limits, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The flow of poorly treated wastewater put the Saluda off limits for swimming for about two weeks near the park in late June and early July, among the busiest recreational times on the river. The no-swim advisories extended over the July 4 weekend.
Recreational use of the popular river suffered, keeping people out of the water and hurting some businesses that rent tubes, canoes and kayaks. Bacteria levels in improperly treated sewage can make people sick.
“This was serious,’’ said Bill Stangler, the riverkeeper for the Congaree and Saluda rivers. “If anyone tries to say this wasn’t a big deal, go talk to local river outfitters who lost business during that time. They’ll tell you ‘absolutely.’”
Stangler said he’s glad South Carolina’s environmental agency issued the $78,940 fine against Carolina Water. After conducting his own tests, he warned state regulators in May about elevated bacteria levels in the river. DHEC did not issue no-swim advisories until late June.
“What we have seen from DHEC after that incident on the Saluda River has been encouraging,’’ he said, noting that the agency has pledged to look more carefully at wastewater plants along the Saluda.
DHEC had no immediate comment on the fine, which is to be presented at the agency’s monthly board meeting Thursday.
A spokesman for Carolina Water Service was not immediately available Monday, but the company has said in the past it was working to resolve issues at its Friarsgate sewage treatment plant in Irmo.
In addition to the fine, DHEC’s enforcement action against the private utility includes requirements that the company submit a corrective action plan to address sources of the bacteria violations; submit an updated operations maintenance manual; sample discharges from the plant more often; and use an independent operator to run the Friarsgate treatment plant.
The Friarsgate plant releases wastewater in the river at Saluda Shoals Park. A pipe comes out near a boat landing, and treated wastewater can sometimes be seen bubbling up in the water.
Eliminating sewage discharges in the lower Saluda has been a goal of regional planners and environmentalists for decades. The lower Saluda is unusual in South Carolina because it contains characteristics of both mountain and coastal rivers. Anglers like it because the water is cold enough for trout to survive. Kayakers like it for the challenging whitewater rapids. But its banks include trees draped in Spanish moss, a characteristic of coastal South Carolina.
Carolina Water, which has systems across South Carolina, has had its share of troubles with state regulators and river enthusiasts. It remains in a legal battle with the Congaree Riverkeeper organization over discharges from another sewage plant at Interstate 20.
During a 20-year period from the early 1990s until 2013, Carolina Water and companies affiliated with it received more state environmental fines than any other company, person or government during the same period, The State newspaper reported in 2013.