South Carolina's environmental protection agency has no plan to fine SCE&G for dumping oxygen-depleted water into the Saluda River, even though a local riverkeeper has called for sanctions against the utility.
In a statement Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control said South Carolina Electric & Gas intends to upgrade its hydroelectric station at Lake Murray - and that eventually should improve water quality in the Saluda River.
The agency also said it is not unusual to see low oxygen levels below dams, particularly during heavy rains like those last week.
DHEC believes there is room for improvement, but the agency "does not consider this specific event involving the release of water with low dissolved oxygen an issue that requires enforcement action," agency officials said in the statement.
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Alan Mehrzad, riverkeeper for the lower Saluda, Congaree and Broad rivers, said Tuesday he wasn't surprised DHEC had declined to fine SCE&G.
"DHEC is pretty soft when it comes to that," said Mehrzad, who earlier in the week called for fines against the power company for what he said were violations of state water quality standards.
Soaking rains associated with the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida forced SCE&G to release more water through its power station last week than is normal. As a result, the water was relatively low in oxygen as it reached the river.
For 15 hours Nov. 11-12, air levels in the Saluda also plummeted to well below the standard that fish need to survive, federal data show. No fish kills were reported, although that was hard to track.
Mehrzad agreed that a power company plan to upgrade the hydro station will improve oxygen levels in water released to the Saluda. But he said that plan may not take full effect for 11 years.
SCE&G also needs an interim plan to protect the river from releases, from the bottom of the lake, of water that lacks oxygen, he said. Mehrzad suggested using a spillway to release oxygen-rich surface water from the lake, rather than sending oxygen-depleted bottom water through the SCE&G power plant.
Company spokesman Robert Yanity said a spillway that could release some surface water is only for emergencies. He said his company tried to protect water quality last week while dealing with an unusually high torrent of water associated with Ida.
Water flowing at nearly 30,000 cubic feet per second was gushing into Lake Murray from upstream rivers, but the company has capacity to release only 18,000 cubic feet per second at the dam on the other side of the lake, he said. He noted SCE&G has not had any water quality violations this year.
SCE&G's plan to upgrade its power station comes as part of a proposed new federal license to operate the Lake Murray dam. SCE&G has struck a deal with environmental groups and others, making it likely the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will approve the license soon. But DHEC still needs to approve a water quality permit before the federal license can be OK'd.
"Relicensing this dam presents an opportunity to help address this issue," the agency said in a written response to questions from The State newspaper."