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Angry crowd: Clamp down on sewage plant

An inquisitive - and at times angry crowd - urged the state Thursday to clamp down on a utility responsible for a major sewage spill that polluted the Saluda River in 2008.

Alpine Utilities Inc. should either lose its right to operate a sewage plant at Stoop Creek or face stricter standards in a new discharge permit, state regulators were told at a hearing.

Some attending the meeting said the spill had sickened people who boated or swam on the Saluda. Others said it had hurt outdoor tourism.

Up to 1 million gallons of partially treated wastewater spilled to a tributary of the Saluda in late July 2008.

"I feel like this was an assault on my son," said David Rhoten, who recounted how his youngster had gotten an upset stomach after the two had "played around" on the river at about the same time the spill occurred.

Rhoten said he and his son didn't know about the spill until several days after they spent time on the Saluda. Alpine and state regulators have been criticized for failing to warn the public quickly enough. Rhoten urged DHEC to deny the permit.

"They did bodily harm to him and it was intentional," Rhoten said of Alpine, calling the wastewater discharge "a criminal act. I don't understand why somebody's not being prosecuted for it."

Robin Dial, Alpine's president, apologized to the crowd Thursday for the spill, saying the company "profoundly" regretted what happened.

He said the spill was an accident that resulted from equipment breaking down.

Dial said after the meeting he was unaware of any additional violations the company has had, aside from those cited in state and federal enforcement actions during the past year. Alpine has been fined $39,000 since last summer in connection with the July 2008 spill. Some people at the meeting said the company had violated discharge limits at other times.

All told, 37 people, excluding state regulators, attended the hearing at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control office on Bull Street.

At issue is a new pollution discharge permit for Alpine's nearly 40-year-old wastewater treatment plant.

DHEC has proposed a new permit with tougher monitoring requirements for bacteria, while requiring an emergency operations plan in case of any other spills. But the agency's permit also drops some requirements that Alpine meet daily pollution limits. In some cases, the utility will only have to meet weekly limits.

None of those who spoke Thursday seemed satisfied with DHEC's proposal, although some agreed it would be difficult to shutter the plant. About 5,500 customers rely on the sewage service and there is no readily available system to take over.

One of the biggest complaints at the hearing, and at a question-and-answer session beforehand, centered on why DHEC had not required specific equipment or measures to stop a sewage spill in the future - rather than relying on fines after spills occur.

"DHEC sounds like to me it's just a police force, after the fact," said Bob Hayden, who lives along the river. "What we would like to see, at least from our standpoint, is that it never happens."

Jeff deBessonet, director of DHEC's water facilities permitting division, said there is nothing explicit in state rules that requires new equipment, such as a tank, in the discharge permit. Such a tank could help hold wastewater if the sewage plant broke down. Hayden also suggested a holding pond to contain spills.

Still, deBessonet said DHEC would weigh these comments in making a final decision on the discharge permit. The agency can either deny or modify its proposal to reissue the discharge permit for the plant, built in the early 1970s near I-20 and Bush River Road in Lexington County.

"We've told them to get on track; we've asked for this emergency operation plan," deBessonet said of Alpine. "They've agreed to that. We've put that in the permit. And we're thinking that that is going to mitigate any problems in the future."

River advocates said keeping the Saluda clean is an important economic issue because the Saluda is used by many people for recreation.

Mike Mayo, who runs an outdoor center in West Columbia, urged strict limits on sewage discharges. He said people from Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and New Jersey have come to Columbia to rent boats from his company so they can float down the area's rivers. He said his business suffered after the spill.

The lower Saluda is one of three major rivers that cut through South Carolina's capital city. It begins at the Lake Murray dam, winds past Riverbanks Zoo and merges with the Broad River to form the Congaree

Unlike the Broad and the Congaree, the Saluda contains a series of widely known whitewater rapids and icy cold water. The lower Saluda's near frigid water, caused by releases from Lake Murray, allows for a small trout fishery, even though the fish are native to the mountains. That chilly water also attracts swimmers on sweltering summer days.

Area leaders have been pushing for nearly 20 years to get all sewage discharges out of the Saluda, but progress has been slow. DHEC's discharge permit would require Alpine to tie in with a regional plant if such service becomes available.