Alleging years of illegal sewage discharges to the Saluda River, environmentalists filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday in an effort to stop the releases from a Columbia-area wastewater plant that records show was supposed to tie into a regional sewer system in 1999.
The lawsuit, filed by the Congaree Riverkeeper organization, says the lower Saluda River is suffering because the government won’t enforce pollution control laws that apply to sewage discharges from the Carolina Water Service plant. The lower Saluda is a state-designated scenic river.
Wednesday’s suit says Carolina Water Service broke pollution discharge laws 23 times from 2009 through last year, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have not stopped the practice.
According to a 1990s-era area sewer plan, Carolina Water Service was supposed to hook the aging Saluda River plant along Interstate 20 into a regional sewer system. The system became available in 1999. Sewage was to go through the town of Lexington to the city of Cayce, which today has a state-of-the art sewage plant.
Never miss a local story.
But the government hasn’t required Carolina Water to tie into the regional system or stopped the illegal discharges, according to the complaint filed Wednesday for the riverkeeper by the Southern Environmental Law Center.
“Neither the EPA nor DHEC is diligently prosecuting this ongoing violation” of the federal clean water act, the suit says. “Because (Carolina Water) does not have immediate plans to connect the I-20 facility to the regional sewer system, it is likely that its discharges into the lower Saluda will continue, and thus, that its violation of the terms and conditions of its (discharge) permit will continue, presenting environmental and health risk hazards.”
The suit asks a federal judge to force Carolina Water to tie the Interstate 20 sewage plant to a regional system and eliminate discharges to the Saluda from the plant. The suit also asks the court to assess penalties of up to $37,500 per day, per violation, an amount that in one year could exceed $13 million just for one continuing violation for a full year.
No maximum penalty was mentioned in the suit and it’s unlikely the maximum would be assessed, but environmentalists hope the suit will make a difference. Illegal discharges include fecal coliform bacteria, an indicator of pathogens in the water, and materials that suck up oxygen needed by fish to survive.
“State and local officials have been saying this pollution needs to stop for years, but the sewage discharges have gone on as more and more families swim and fish in the Saluda,” said Blan Holman, senior attorney with the law center. “It’s long past time this facility hooked into the cleaner regional treatment system, as it’s been required to do since 1999.”
The suit alleges that while DHEC has issued eight notices of violation against the Carolina Water Service plant in the past five years, the agency has not filed an enforcement action. Such actions can result in fines to force compliance with the law.
A Carolina Water Service spokesperson was not immediately available Wednesday, nor was a spokesman for DHEC. DHEC issued a statement in 2013 saying the plant has not closed because of a series of legal disputes that go back years.
Carolina Water sued DHEC in 2001 opposing the requirement that it tie to a regional system, according to a Nov. 5, 2013, DHEC email. In another case, Carolina Water Service and the town of Lexington sued DHEC over the regional sewer plan, the agency’s email said. Aside from lawsuits, the state Public Service Commission has denied Carolina Water Service’s request to connect the system, according to the DHEC email.
Formed in the southern Appalachian Mountains, the Saluda River winds through the Upstate to Lake Murray, then continues about 12 miles below the dam. It merges with the Broad River to form the Congaree. The Saluda is known for its whitewater rapids and cold-water trout fishery, an oddity in central South Carolina that is created by cold-water releases through the Lake Murray dam. As a result, it’s popular with kayakers and fishermen, as well as swimmers. It also is a state designated scenic river.
Regional planners have for 25 years sought to eliminate all sewage discharges from the river because it is considered special, but that hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons, including opposition from some utilities.
The riverkeeper’s lawsuit names Carolina Water Service as the defendant. The suit was filed under the federal Clean Water Act, which allows citizens to sue for enforcement of environmental laws if they can show the government did not do so. Environmentalists filed notice in 2013 that a suit was pending if the discharges did not stop.
Records reviewed by The State newspaper in 2013 showed that Carolina Water Service and affiliated companies had been sanctioned more times by DHEC for repeat pollution violations than any other company or government in the state. Carolina Water’s parent company is Utilities Inc., a national utility that serves multiple states.
In a news release, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the goal is cleaner water for the lower Saluda River. The non-profit Congaree Riverkeeper tracks pollution issues in both waterways.
“All the folks who enjoy the Saluda River want it free from sewage and other pollutants,” Stangler’s statement said. “Stopping the illegal discharge and connecting to the regional system is 15 years past due.”