IT’S NOT QUITE “DING-DONG, the witch is dead,” but it’s a pretty big deal, of the sort that we don’t see often enough in South Carolina.
For more than two decades, people who fish and swim and boat in the Lower Saluda River have been complaining about the raw sewage that gets spilled into the scenic river too often — about how it keeps happening, about how state regulators don’t seem to care that it keeps happening, about how we’ve had a plan in place for a quarter century to stop dumping even treated sewage into that river.
And then last month, after the major Saluda River polluter yet again released untreated sewage into the river, and the Department of Health and Environmental Control botched its handling of that spill, the state’s environmental protection agency finally said enough is enough. The agency told Carolina Water Service it has to stop dumping treated sewage into the river from its plant near Interstate 20.
This is wonderful news.
We’ve seen too many times how easily a permit to dump treated sewage into the river results in untreated sewage being dumped into the river. That’s always a danger, but it’s been particularly problematic for Carolina Water, which is part of a corporation that was subject to more state environmental enforcement actions than any other from the early 1990s through late 2013.
The company, which operates three of the six sewage plants on the Saluda, has violated federal discharge limits 31 times in the past five years — 19 of them at the I-20 plant. So getting that one plant closed should go a long way toward making the river a safer and more pleasant place for the fish and the people who use it.
Unfortunately, DHEC’s order is not the end of the story.
DHEC put Carolina Water under orders in 1999 to hook into a regional system when it became available. That system has been available for 17 years — the town of Lexington has sewage pipes just a few feet from the I-20 treatment plant — but DHEC never forced a connection.
A year ago, the agency signaled that it would renew Carolina Water’s operating permit, and even make it more palatable to the company, apparently out of concern for what would happen to its customers if the permit was denied.
After intense criticism from the public and threats by local legislators to pass a law to deny the permit, the agency reversed course and said its policies required it to deny the permit. But in nearly a year since, all that has happened is that Carolina Water and Lexington have accused each other of being unreasonable as they negotiate over how the town will take over the service.
DHEC’s latest announcement gave Carolina Water and the town 60 days to submit a plan explaining how the company will connect with Lexington’s sewage pipes. It said both could face fines of up to $10,000 per day if they failed to meet the deadline. Carolina Water promptly promised to appeal, although it said the goal was to get a fair deal from Lexington, not to remain in the river-dumping business.
Frankly, the lawsuit is the least of our concerns. Our biggest concern — based on decades of watching the agency being cowed by its board members, and legislators, and, yes, threats of lawsuits — is that once again the political winds will shift and our public health agency will be forced to back down.
We hope that doesn’t happen.
We hope DHEC Director Catherine Heigel will remain as committed to being an independent, apolitical professional as she has appeared to be. We hope DHEC’s board will respect the science and the law behind the agency’s decision and not intervene to preserve river-dumping. We hope the Republican and Democratic legislators who have been pushing DHEC on this matter will continue to push — and fight back any attempts by the company, or other polluters, to preserve laissez-faire regulation.
South Carolina deserves a health and environmental agency that works to protect the public health and environment. It’s hard to think of a more obvious way to do that than to stop untreated sewage from being dumped into our rivers.