COLUMBIA, SC State regulators warned Tuesday against swimming at a popular waterfront park in Irmo after finding improperly treated sewage had flowed into the Saluda River and contaminated the water with unsafe levels of bacteria.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control blamed the elevated bacteria counts on a Carolina Water Service treatment plant at Friarsgate. The plant has a discharge pipe in the river at Saluda Shoals and wastewater coming from the pipe did not meet safe standards, the agency said.
Robert Yanity, a spokesman for DHEC, said one water test result showed bacteria 12 times higher than the acceptable level for safe swimming.
“We certainly think this is an issue that needs to be rectified pretty quickly,’’ Yanity said. “One of our priorities is ensuring the word gets out that people need to be careful around Saluda Shoals and that stretch of the river.’’
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Yanity said the agency had recently learned of potential water quality problems, which prompted a closer look at the Friarsgate plant Tuesday. He did not elaborate, but testing last month by the Congaree Riverkeeper organization documented high bacteria counts in the Saluda near the park.
DHEC officials said they had posted temporary signs warning of the elevated bacteria levels they discovered. The agency advised people against ducking their heads under the river and to avoid the water if they have open cuts or wounds. Exposure to poorly treated sewage can give people upset stomachs or infections.
The department said an agency investigation had identified “operational deficiencies’’ at the Friarsgate plant. Agency officials said they have directed Carolina Water Service to “immediately correct the problem.’’
“The affected area includes the section of the river that runs the length of Saluda Shoals Park,’’ DHEC said in a statement. “Higher than normal bacteria levels have been detected in this section of the river, and swimming is not advised until bacteria levels return to normal.’’
Although DHEC was trying to get the word out, some people were still swimming and boating in the river near Saluda Shoals at about dusk on Tuesday, according to one report.
A spokesman for Carolina Water Service said late Tuesday the company is aware of the problem and is working closely with DHEC to address concerns. Carolina Water Service officials have said they work hard to provide clean water and to release properly treated wastewater.
Saluda Shoals is one of the Columbia-area’s most visible waterfront parks. It has a boat ramp where people often launch canoes and kayaks, as well as trails and a nature center. The park is on what many consider Columbia’s most significant recreational river. The lower Saluda River is the only state-designated scenic river in the area and is a popular spot for boating, fishing and whitewater rafting. The Saluda River connects with the Broad River to form the Congaree.
Mullen Taylor, a board member with the Congaree Riverkeeper organization , said she’s concerned about sewage discharging to the Saluda. She said she spoke with Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who is out of town, about the issue Tuesday night. Stangler said the organization’s recent water quality testing had alerted DHEC to potential problems, Taylor said.
“Having these kinds of things occur is really disappointing,’’ Taylor said. “The political leaders and regulators need to think hard about how to protect the Saluda River. It is the most heavily used river by recreational users. It is meaningful and it has an impact on recreation.’’
Carolina Water Service has a big presence in South Carolina, but a history of controversies. It currently is embroiled in a dispute with the Congaree Riverkeeper over discharges from an Interstate 20 treatment plant near Lexington into the Saluda. This year, the company discovered elevated lead levels in several of its drinking water systems.
The company is part of the larger Utilities Inc. corporation, which operates across the country. Utilities Inc.-owned companies had more repeat violations of environmental laws in South Carolina than any other government, company or person during the past two decades, according to documents obtained by The State newspaper in 2013.