A plan by S.C. Electric and Gas to leave a slick of polluted coal tar in the Congaree River, instead of cleaning it up, received federal authorization this week.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit Wednesday that allows the power company to cover the toxin-tainted coal tar with stones or other material to hold it in place. The company had originally planned to dig up the coal tar and haul it away, but backed away from that plan because of the expensive effort it would require.
The plan approved by the Corps, made public Friday morning, calls for capping about 2.3 acres of riverbed near the Senate Street landing below the Gervais Street bridge.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said the Corps made a bad decision, one that doesn’t do enough to protect the waterway in the future. The riverkeeper group is likely to fight the decision, he said.
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“We’re considering our options, and, right now, that includes legal challenges,” Stangler said Friday.
Tainted with cancer-causing pollutants such as benzene, the black muck reportedly has caused skin irritation for kayakers and waders who have stepped in the material.
“This doesn’t fix the problem,” Stangler said. “It burdens our community with a toxic legacy that every future generation will have to live with. It can have significant impacts to the health of the river and to human health.”
State regulators say water quality in the river has not been hurt by the coal tar, although testing has been limited.
The coal tar in the river extends from near the Gervais Street bridge to the Blossom Street bridge adjacent to Columbia’s bustling Vista entertainment district and the S.C. State Museum. Much of the tar is concentrated near the Senate Street landing on the Gervais Street end.
The material leaked out of an old manufactured gas plant uphill from the river in the early to mid-20th century. It was reported to state regulators in 2010, when a kayaker got out of his boat near the Senate Street landing and stepped in it.
SCE&G had planned first to dam the river temporarily so it could excavate the coal tar and get rid of it. But the cost was high and the company has since sought permission to cover the material with a geotextile fabric and stones. The company says that should hold the tar in place while protecting the surrounding environment.
Leaving the material in the riverbed and putting a fabric-and-stone cap over it would save SCE&G as much as $11 million, according to records reviewed by The State newspaper. The original cost of about $18 million would drop to about $7 million under the latest plan. SCE&G did not provide a cost estimate this week when asked by the newspaper.
SCE&G spokeswoman Ginny Jones said the Corps’ approval will allow the utility to submit a formal plan to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for stabilizing the coal tar.
The plan still needs a host of additional environmental permits, so it could be some time before work actually would begin. SCE&G’s parent company, SCANA, told DHEC it expects to submit a work plan within a month.
“We are currently working through the design and permitting process for the capping solution, and we’ll continue to share those details as the project moves forward,” Jones said in an email this week.
Jones said the company would prefer to remove the coal tar, but determined that isn’t realistic. She also downplayed any potential hazard to people using the river.
“Even though SCDHEC has determined that the water in this area of the Congaree River is safe for recreational use and that the tar material does not pose a short-term health hazard, our strong preference has always been to remove the material from the river,” Jones said.
“In fact, we have spent six years working to develop a plan for removal of the material. Unfortunately, there simply is no strategy for removal that is viable from an engineering standpoint and for which we can obtain the necessary permits.”
This week’s approval follows a public meeting last February at which many in the crowd pushed for the tar’s removal. The approval issued this week is a “nationwide permit,” one that allows for fewer chances for the public to comment. Nationwide permits are given to projects considered to have a relatively minor impact on the environment.