State regulators are continuing to find elevated pollution levels in an Irmo wastewater treatment plant that they say contaminated the Saluda River with enough bacteria to make swimming unsafe at a popular park.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has determined improvements intended to stop river pollution aren’t working consistently at the Friarsgate wastewater plant, according to a letter the agency wrote Tuesday to Utilities Inc., and its subsidiary, Carolina Water Service.
DHEC said a no-swimming advisory remains in effect at Saluda Shoals Park, a waterfront recreation site that draws more than 600,000 visitors annually.
The department issued the swimming advisory June 21 after finding high bacteria levels in the river. Carolina Water Service, which operates the plant, later said it made improvements at the treatment facility and hoped the swimming advisory would be lifted.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who also tracks the Saluda, said many expected the advisory to be dropped this past weekend.
“It is disappointing that the system has yet to be able to consistently discharge effluent that meets the bacteria standards,’’ DHEC water bureau chief David Baize said in his letter to Carolina Water Service.
If Carolina Water Service and Utilities Inc., don’t resolve the problems, the companies face possible state environmental fines. Carolina Water faces penalties of up to $10,000 per day for each violation, according to Baize’s letter and an email Tuesday from DHEC spokeswoman Jennifer Read.
Utilities Inc. and the companies it owns, including Carolina Water, have an extensive history of environmental violations in the state. Records analyzed by The State newspaper in 2013 showed that Utilities Inc. and its companies were sanctioned more than any other company, government or person during a 20-year period.
Carolina Water Service is currently involved in a lawsuit with the Congaree Riverkeeper over pollution discharges at a wastewater plant on the Saluda downriver from the Irmo plant.
While pollution levels in the river have dipped substantially in the past two weeks, discharges at the Friarsgate plant remain above permitted amounts, according to data released Tuesday night. That’s a concern because the plant discharges to the river through a pipe near the Saluda Shoals boat launch.
Wastewater treated at the Friarsgate plant was 16 times higher than the standard for safe swimming, according to test results from Monday. The E-coli bacteria counts were six times higher than those registered at the plant the previous day, DHEC records show.
“We expect CWS to take the necessary actions to ensure the effluent discharge is consistently meeting the bacteria permit limit as expeditiously as possible because of the impact to the lower Saluda River and the associated swimming advisory impacting recreation,’’ DHEC’s letter said.
Carolina Water Service spokesman Tom Oakley wasn’t available Tuesday night. Stangler also wasn’t available for comment after DHEC released the letter to Carolina Water, but he said earlier that the problem needs a resolution.
Stangler said too many people who boat, swim and fish on the river have suffered – as have businesses that rent equipment and provide tours. That’s a concern as the July 4 weekend approaches
“These are guys who barely made it through the floods,’’ that wrecked Columbia last fall, Stangler said. “And now they are in the peak season for when they do their best business, and they had to shut down.’’
Katie Maglocci, operations manager at Palmetto Outdoors, said her company shut down from June 22-25 as concerns rose about water pollution in the Saluda. She said the company stopped renting tubes, turning away several hundred potential customers – many who came from other parts of the state and region.
“For a small business like us, it killed us,’’ she said. “We had people driving in from Charleston, from Greenville, from Augusta who had no idea about this.’’
The lower Saluda is considered Columbia’s signature recreational river. It has an unusual combination of features that make it unique. The river’s banks are lined with Spanish moss, like that found in the Lowcountry, but its waters are so cold they support a trout fishery, which is more common in the mountains. The river also has a challenging set of whitewater rapids near Riverbanks Zoo.
Regional planners have been pushing for more than a quarter century to eliminate all sewage discharges to protect water quality in the lower Saluda, but many discharges remain.