COLUMBIA, SC Shaking his head slightly, John Tate looked across the crowded hearing room Tuesday and explained what he thinks of a plan to continue discharging sewage into the lower Saluda River – particularly when it involves Carolina Water Service.
Tate said the company’s spotty record of obeying environmental laws makes it a bad risk to keep running a sewage treatment plant near Interstate 20. State regulators propose a new permit for the wastewater plant.
A new permit “makes about as much sense as going to the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, loading all the shoplifters on a bus and carrying them to Wal-Mart,” Tate said.
Tuesday’s hearing at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control drew 285 people, virtually all of whom appeared to be against a new permit. Loud applause greeted most of the more than three-dozen speakers who railed against the sewage discharge plan Tuesday night.
Those speaking against the permit included a sixth-grader from Hand Middle School, an ex-DHEC employee, environmentalists, fishermen, Carolina Water customers, business people, river guides and an array of local politicians.
”The frequent improper discharges from the Carolina Water Service plant are a threat’’ to outdoor recreation, said Trout Unlimited’s Reuben Chandler, noting that trout are “extremely vulnerable” to drops in oxygen that result from unsafe levels of pollution in the Saluda.
He urged DHEC to deny the permit and require Carolina Water to connect with a regional sewer system, which it has been required to do since 1999.
”We find the current situation extremely unsettling. So please also consider our plea. For one company to taint this wonderful resource through its persistent negligence, makes no sense when a simple remedy is at hand.”
Republican Sens. John Courson of Richland County and Ronnie Cromer of Newberry County were among the elected leaders voicing opposition to a new permit, as were Democratic Reps. James Smith of Richland and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat. State Republican Party Chairman Matt Moore, who fishes in the river, also urged DHEC not to approve the permit.
Carolina Water, whose plant serves about 2,400 customers near the town of Lexington, did not send a speaker to the hearing. The company and its sister businesses had more repeat violations of environmental laws in South Carolina than any other entity from the early 1990s through 2013, The State newspaper reported.
At issue is a plan by DHEC to grant a new permit for Carolina Water that many say is weaker than the existing permit, which expired years ago and has never been renewed. DHEC officials say the new permit they are proposing contains tougher discharge limits and prohibits expansion of the plant.
The main point of contention, however, is language in the new permit that could allow Carolina Water to delay connection to a regional sewer system. The company has been under orders by DHEC to tie in with a regional sewer system that became available 16 years ago, but it has never connected for a variety of reasons. The company has been sued by the Congaree Riverkeeper organization for failing to hook up.
DHEC’s proposed permit says Carolina must seek to tie in with the regional system in November 2016 or give a reason why it can’t do so. That, detractors say, gives the company too much freedom to avoid that obligation.
During Tuesday’s hearing, DHEC officials emphasized that while they want Carolina Water to tie in with the regional system, they can’t force the company to do so legally. The agency said that’s up to the town of Lexington, which has the regional sewer system. Agency officials also said Carolina Water needs approval from the state Public Service Commission to tie in.
Agency officials will take public comments through Sept. 1, after which they will make a decision on a new permit.
The lower Saluda River is unusual in South Carolina because it contains whitewater rapids and a coldwater trout fishery, the latter of which is found almost exclusively in the mountains. The lower Saluda is perhaps the most popular of the Columbia-area’s three major rivers for those reasons. The lower Saluda is also one of only a handful of state scenic rivers. River protection groups have been pushing for more than 25 years to get all sewer discharges out of the river, and regional plans have also advocated that effort.
Carolina Water has resisted those efforts, saying it also needs approval from the state Public Service Commission. Rates might have to be increased to pay for improvements to the sewer plant or to tie in with the regional system, Carolina Water backers say.
That didn’t sit well with Janey Goude, a Lexington area resident who said Carolina Water charges more than enough to pay for sewer improvements without hitting rate payers. Goude said she moved to South Carolina from Florida some years ago. Her rates increased from $30 per quarter in Florida to $90 per month for Carolina Water’s utility service, she said.
”They have got plenty of money to follow the law,’ she said to applause. “If they try to use the excuse that they don’t have enough money to do what is right, I can promise you, you can look at my bank account. I pay enough to do what is right.’