A federal judge has fined Carolina Water Service $1.5 million and ordered the private utility to stop discharging sewage into the scenic lower Saluda River from a treatment plant with a history of pollution.
The ruling in favor of the Congaree Riverkeeper group is a major victory for river protection advocates who have been trying for years to force an end to the discharges. Carolina Water was supposed to tie into a regional sewer system in the 1990s, but never did.
By April 1, 2018, Carolina Water must quit releasing sewage from the Interstate 20 plant and connect to a regional treatment system, U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour said in a ruling released Thursday morning. Seymour’s decision was in response to a Clean Water Act lawsuit filed by the riverkeeper group, which monitors water quality on the Saluda, Congaree and Broad rivers.
“It is absolutely good news for the environment and the Saluda River, the Congaree River and everybody who fishes, swims and recreates in these waters,’’said Blan Holman, an attorney for the riverkeeper organization.
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“These rivers are the Central Park of the Columbia metropolitan area and we need to protect them to the full extent of the law,’’ he said.
Despite the optimism, the case may not be over. Carolina Water Service could appeal the federal ruling, which would keep the dispute in court for several years. The company said Thursday it would ask the judge to reconsider her decision.
“We are obviously disappointed with the initial ruling and will be filing a motion for reconsideration,’’ company spokesman Tom Oakley said in an email.
The company, part of a national chain with an array of past pollution violations in South Carolina, has consistently appealed rulings against the I-20 plant. Those appeals have kept the plant operating as the legal battles raged. In addition to the federal case, Carolina Water is fighting in administrative law court a state decision to deny its discharge permit
Carolina Water has said it wanted to stop the discharges, but has had trouble striking an agreement with the town of Lexington to tie into the regional sewer system. That system discharges into the Congaree River.
Holman, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said the company is running out of legal options – and that’s a good thing.
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said Seymour’s decision could bolster the town’s effort to acquire the I-20 plant for the regional sewer system because “it’s an ultimatum” to end discharges. Purchase talks are at an early stage as consultants evaluate the condition of the utility’s plants, MacDougall said.
The lower Saluda is a state designated scenic river that runs from the Lake Murray dam to the Broad River, forming the Congaree. The Saluda has whitewater rapids and a trout fishery like in the mountains. But its banks also contain trees draped with Spanish moss, which is more common on the coast.
Environmentalists for decades have pushed to end all sewage discharges into the Saluda because of its special nature.
About a half dozen private wastewater plants send millions of gallons of treated sewage into the Saluda every day.
That includes not only the I-20 plant, but another troubled plant the company operates at the Friarsgate subdivision in Irmo. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control fined Carolina Water Service nearly $80,000 earlier this month for releasing poorly treated sewage into the river near Saluda Shoals Park last summer. The discharges caused the agency to issue advisories against swimming.
In regard to the I-20 plant, the Congaree Riverkeeper group persuaded the judge that members of the organization were hurt by the Saluda River discharge pipe. The order cited examples of people refusing to kayak or canoe in the river near the discharge pipe because of health worries.
Seymour said the riverkeeper organization “has demonstrated that its members use the affected area ..... and that they avoid the area due to aesthetic and health concerns.’’
In her order, Seymour said Carolina Water must pay the $1.5 million for failing to tie into the regional sewer system and for violating pollution discharge limits into the lower Saluda from the I-20 plant. That amount dwarfs most fines issued by the state’s environmental agency. But Seymour said it was justified to deter more violations.
Carolina Water violated federal pollution discharge limits at least 23 different times, the order states. The company kept its I-20 plant open for 17 years after it was required to connect with the regional sewer system, the judge said.
During one four-year stretch, the company gained an “economic benefit” of $689,000 annually, Seymour said. Economic benefit often is considered the amount of money saved by a company, person or government for failing to take steps that would control pollution.
The order acknowledged that Carolina Water needs cooperation from Lexington, but it said the company “cannot be rewarded for its lack of a good faith effort to engage in negotiations.’’
Staff Writer Tim Flach contributed to this story.