For the second time in a year, Columbia-area legislators are blasting the Carolina Water Service utility over pollution in the lower Saluda River.
Lawmakers said they are not sure how to stop what they called a pattern of lax operations at Carolina Water Service. But they said they are looking for answers as state regulators continue to investigate sewage pollution that recently sent bacteria levels soaring in the river at Saluda Shoals Park, a popular riverfront recreation spot.
State regulators issued warnings Tuesday against swimming at the park after determining that a Carolina Water Service wastewater plant had contaminated the river with unsafe levels of bacteria. Park officials then shut down some tube rentals and advised canoeists to paddle upriver from a Carolina Water Service discharge pipe at the park.
“This didn’t shock me because it was Carolina Water Service; it was like, ‘Dang, here we go again,’ ‘’ said state Rep. Chip Huggins, a Lexington County Republican whose district includes part of Saluda Shoals. “It’s just one thing after the next.’’
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State Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, and Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, and Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said it was frustrating to learn that elevated bacteria levels at Saluda Shoals came from a Carolina Water Service sewage plant in Irmo’s Friarsgate neighborhood.
State regulators say the Friarsgate plant malfunctioned, allowing poorly treated wastewater to drain through a discharge pipe and into the river at the park.
One way to resolve problems at Friarsgate is to shut down the plant and let the city of Columbia provide service, but that could be difficult, Smith said. Carolina Water Service has been reluctant to tie in with regional sewer systems in some instances.
Huggins, Courson, Cromer and Smith were among area lawmakers who stood on the banks of the Saluda last fall to show support for shutting down a Carolina Water Service wastewater plant several miles downriver from the Irmo plant.
Soon afterward, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control denied a new permit to continue running the plant at Interstate 20. Carolina Water Service has challenged that action. A lawsuit filed by river protection advocates says the company violated pollution discharge laws more than 20 times at the I-20 plant.
Cromer said Carolina Water Service should have realized last year that state policy makers were not happy with the company.
“Knowing how much pressure we put on them to try and clean up their act and what has gone on in the past, you would think they would be trying to have an exemplary record right now,’’ Cromer said. “I’m certainly upset that this happened. It has happened too many times in the past.’’
History of violations
Utilities Inc. and S.C. companies it owns — including Carolina Water — have been sanctioned more times for breaking environmental laws in the Palmetto State than any other business, government or person during the past two decades.
During a 20-year period, Utilities Inc. and its related companies had been the subject of more than 50 state environmental enforcement actions, The State newspaper reported in 2013.
DHEC officials say they have no record of ever fining the company’s Friarsgate plant, but the state agency did find a discharge violation for bacteria in July 2014. The agency issued a violation notice. Later testing showed that bacteria levels had come into compliance, according to an email from DHEC spokeswoman Jennifer Read.
Testing in mid-June of this year by DHEC found E. coli bacteria levels more than twice the standard of 349 colonies per 100 milliliters of water. Test results showed E. coli levels of 866 at the Saluda Shoals discharge pipe and 920 in the river 20 feet downstream from the pipe.
The Congaree Riverkeeper, in separate testing in May, found levels in excess of 500 and alerted DHEC.
Elevated E. coli levels indicate the presence of pathogens that can make people sick. People exposed to elevated bacteria can get upset stomachs or infections to open wounds.
Carolina Water Service officials did not provide a response to criticism from state legislators, but the company has said it is trying to run clean, non-polluting treatment plants.
This past week, the company apologized for the problems at Saluda Shoals and pledged to fix them. The company said it completed repairs to an aeration system at the Friarsgate plant and it was back in operation by late in the week.
“CWS is genuinely and deeply apologetic for the inconvenience and concern created by these recent elevated bacteria levels found in the river,’’ a company statement said Thursday.
Utilities Inc., the parent company of Carolina Water, is a national corporation with a network of small, private water and sewer systems in South Carolina.
The Friarsgate plant is permitted to treat 1.2 million gallons of sewage a day. The discharge pipe into the Saluda River existed before the Saluda Shoals park was developed in the late 1990s.
Over the past 25 years, Columbia area rivers, including the Broad and the Congaree, have become increasingly popular with fishermen and boaters.
The lower Saluda is considered by many to be the crown jewel of area waterways. Located between Lake Murray and the Congaree, the lower Saluda is a state-designated scenic waterway with an unusual combination of features.
Its banks are draped in Spanish moss like that found in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, but the river water is so cold it contains a growing trout fishery, normally found in the mountains. Fishermen come from miles away to cast their hooks for trout. At the same time, the river has a challenging set of whitewater rapids that attract kayakers, and a series of quiet backwaters that canoeists love.
Matt Moore, chairman of the state Republican Party and an avid fishermen, said the Carolina Water Service spill upset many of the people he knows who live and recreate along the Saluda. Saluda Shoals Park, which draws more than 600,000 visitors a year, is a signature recreation area on the river.
“The pollution at Saluda Shoals Park has prevented people from using a public resource,’’ he said. “That is the tragic part of all of this.’’
While it was unclear what state lawmakers can do in response to the pollution at Saluda Shoals, environmental lawyer Bob Guild, a Carolina Water Service critic, suggested condemning the Friarsgate sewage plant. The state then could make sure it is operated properly, he said.
Rep. Huggins said it would be worth examining whether the city of Columbia could take over the Friarsgate service area. While the city has had its share of spill problems, Rep. Smith said he thinks it could better serve the Irmo area, noting the city is making millions of dollars in system repairs.
Joey Jaco, the city of Columbia’s utilities director, said he had no idea if Columbia would be interested in acquiring the Friarsgate service territory. The Friarsgate plant serves about 3,300 customers, according to the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Jaco said if the city did acquire the Friarsgate plant, discharges would no longer be made into the Saluda River at the park. Sewage would be routed to Columbia’s 60 million gallon-a-day treatment plant, which discharges into the Congaree River.
Moving all discharges from the Saluda River has been the goal of a regional sewerage plan for more than 25 years. Removing discharge pipes from the Saluda would result in fewer pollution threats, making nonexistent warnings like the one issued Tuesday, Huggins and Smith agreed.
In addition to Friarsgate, Carolina Water Service’s I-20 plant has been targeted for closure so its customers could tie into a regional system that discharges to the Congaree.
Smith said Carolina Water Service is an ongoing concern – and a new way of doing business is needed.
“How many times does it take, and how bad does it have to get, before things change?’’