COLUMBIA, SC Outfitters who make a living on the lower Saluda River are suing Carolina Water Service for discharging sewage into the scenic waterway from two treatment plants.
The state lawsuit, filed Thursday by some of the area’s most visible outdoors companies, says improperly treated wastewater from the private utility has kept them from running guided tours, renting equipment and spending time on the river between the Lake Murray dam and downtown Columbia.
The suit does not say how much revenue the companies have lost, but it is seeking damages from Carolina Water Service and its parent corporation, Utilities Inc.
Among the companies suing are the River Runner, Palmetto Outdoor, Three Rivers Outdoor and Adventure Carolina.
Guy Jones, who opened the River Runner in 1983, said pollution from Carolina Water Service plants is hurting his ability to rent kayaks and canoes. People have become leery of pollution in the lower Saluda, he said.
But he said the lawsuit’s broader goal is to protect the river as a whole. He wants to stop discharges from Carolina Water Service plants that have contaminated the river, he said.
“I think the fact that this has gone on so long is the issue,’’ Jones said. “There seems to be no resolution in sight.’’
Rick Durham, president of Utilities Inc. declined comment Thursday, saying he had not seen the lawsuit. In the past, the company has said it is trying to comply with pollution discharge limits.
The lower Saluda River stirs passions with many outdoor enthusiasts. The river is unusual because it contains features of both the mountains and coastal plain. The river has whitewater rapids and a cold-water trout fishery like in the southern Appalachians, as well as trees dripping with Spanish moss, a feature of the coast. Riverbanks Zoo, one of the area’s most popular attractions, also is located on both sides of the lower Saluda.
Thursday’s lawsuit singles out two Carolina Water Service plants, one near Saluda Shoals park at Irmo and the other at Interstate 20. Both plants have had problems complying with state and federal discharge guidelines.
The suit says the river outfitters “continue to suffer a severe decrease in business, revenue, clientele base and general interest in the Saluda River due to the continued pollution.’’ The pollution has hurt the river’s image, the suit says.
Last year, poorly treated discharges from Carolina Water’s Friarsgate treatment prompted state health department warnings not to swim in the river at Saluda Shoals. The warnings lasted several weeks and included the July 4th weekend, among the busiest times of the year for recreation on the river .and for outfitters.
In March, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control proposed a nearly $80,000 fine against Carolina Water for the 2016 discharges. The treatment plant at Friarsgate did not properly clean up wastewater before sending it into the river, regulators said. The state issued no swim advisories again last month after bacteria levels soared. The Friarsgate plant was blamed for the discharges.
Carolina Water’s I-20 plant has a long history of troubles, as well, and was the target of a successful lawsuit by the Congaree Riverkeeper. A federal judge ruled against Carolina Water earlier this year and ordered the company to pay a $1.5 million fine for polluting the river and failing to tie into the regional sewer system.
Jones said the group of outfitters would not have sued if state regulators had been able to stop Carolina Water Service’s discharges. The state has for years targeted the I-20 plant for closure and pushed the company to tie customers in with a regional sewer system. But the company has fought the effort. Carolina Water has said it is trying to work out an agreement with the town of Lexington. Carolina Water and related companies have a history statewide of trouble complying with environmental laws, The State reported in 2012.
Regional planners have pushed to eliminate all wastewater discharges from the lower Saluda since the 1980s, but have been unable to do so.
“The Midlands has waited way too long to see a resolution to that problem,’’ Jones said. “We know we should not have these little package plants continuing to operate .... when there are regional treatment plants to treat the effluent.’’