COLUMBIA, SC Richland County Council voted Thursday to spend $1.5 million on repairs to a sewage treatment plant that has tainted the Broad River with bacteria for parts of the past three years.
The plant must be improved or Richland County faces additional enforcement action from the state’s environmental agency. The Department of Health and Environmental Control has hit the county with at least two enforcement orders – the most recent a $6,000 fine in 2015 – over failures at the treatment plant.
Gerald Seals, Richland’s interim administrator, said the county hopes to have the work done by March.
In addition to making upgrades at the treatment plant, the county is hiring a utility consulting firm, The Constantine Group, to help with the improvements. The plant has had trouble with its power supply and with an ultraviolet treatment system used to reduce pollutants in wastewater before the water is released into the river.
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Records show that the Broad River plant, permitted to release 6 million gallons of treated wastewater per day, has violated pollution discharge limits in at least seven months since 2013. The plant released elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria, according to DHEC’s February 2015 enforcement order against the county.
Since the 2015 enforcement order and fine, the county has had at least two violations. Richland County reported a discharge violation as recently as Aug. 5, the result of a power breaker failure, DHEC spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said in an email Thursday.
Poorly treated wastewater can sicken people who come in contact with the river.
“I don’t see us exceeding the limits anymore,’’ Seals said. “We are doing the things necessary. We already have made improvements that make that a non-likelihood.’’
After the Aug. 5 violation, DHEC asked the county to develop a plan to make sure the power breaker doesn’t trip again. The work includes installing a backup wastewater disinfection system, DHEC said.
The county declared the matter a public emergency so it could approve the funds quickly without additional votes in coming weeks, Seals said.
Seals said downstream drinking water supplies are in no danger. But both he and Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, whose organization also monitors water quality on the Broad, said a malfunctioning sewage plant is a serious concern.
The treatment plant is upstream of Columbia’s drinking water supply canal, which draws water from the Broad.
“People say ‘Don’t worry, there are a couple of off-the-chart bacteria numbers’ – but there is a threat,’’ Stangler said, noting that he’s found some pollution violations in the area near the plant in recent years.
He and County Councilman Seth Rose said they’re encouraged the problems can be resolved. Not only will improvements be made, but controls to alert plant operators to problems will be installed, Rose said.
“There are very few things more important than protecting our rivers and streams,’’ Rose said. “It was a no-brainer to allocate the money requested ... to eliminate the problem.’’
Seals said he understands problems at the Broad River plant date to 2009. That is about the time the plant was expanded. The money being used to repair the plant comes from a county utility fund, officials said.
The improvements “are the type of stuff that should have been put in back when it was built,’’ Rose said.
Problems at the Broad River treatment plant are surfacing at the same time similar concerns have been raised about private sewage treatment plants on the nearby Saluda River, which merges with the Broad to form the Congaree River at Columbia.
Two of those Saluda River plants, operated by Carolina Water Service, are blamed for fouling the lower Saluda, one of which prompted advisories against swimming for several weeks this summer at Saluda Shoals Park near Irmo.