As Dominion Energy seeks to expand its presence in South Carolina by acquiring SCANA, the Virginia utility is under scrutiny for an environmental mess that temporarily shut down part of a SC public water system this spring.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says Dominion failed to control sediment near a 55-mile pipeline it had built, contributing to problems at the Woodruff-Roebuck Public Water District, which serves more than 10,000 customers south of Spartanburg.
Sediment washing off the natural gas pipeline's construction sites wound up in creeks that feed into the South Tyger River, where the water district has an intake pipe, records show. The muddy soil also worked its way into the river and helped clog the pipe, officials with DHEC and the water district say
"It had to have contributed,'' DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said.
The problem became so bad one day in mid-April that the Woodruff-Roebuck system had to buy water from another Upstate utility because its mud-clogged intake pipe could not treat water, officials said.
Dominion’s recent problems are occurring as the utility raises its profile in the Palmetto State.
The company now is trying to buy SCANA, the troubled Cayce-headquartered utility, in the aftermath of its $9 billion failed nuclear construction project. Some legislators and South Carolinians are watching Dominion closely to determine what kind of corporate citizen it will be if that buyout succeeds.
Dominion bought SCANA’s pipeline company about four years ago. Since then, it has installed more pipes in South Carolina, including the Upstate line and one through Lower Richland. Dominion recently has been a lightning rod for criticism in Virginia and North Carolina over its plans to build a massive natural gas pipeline through those states. Dominion is one of the nation's largest energy companies.
Dominion's recently completed Upstate pipeline, which extends from southern Spartanburg County to Lake Greenwood, has stirred plenty of concerns among environmentalists and utility managers in the Upstate.
For parts of this year, the Woodruff-Roebuck utility experienced some of the highest turbidity levels — which show the amount of soil in water — ever seen near one of its Tyger River intake pipes, said Jeff Phillips, water resources manager for the system. The highest levels occurred while the pipeline was under construction, as well as after the project was completed in late winter, Phillips said. Rising sediment levels required the company to add more chemicals to treat the water, he said.
In a statement this week, Dominion said its efforts to control erosion along the pipeline's route in southern Spartanburg County were “overwhelmed’’ by heavy rains. Some sediment then reached the South Tyger River, although the amount was “limited,’’ spokeswoman Kristen Beckham said.
Beckham said the utility since has stabilized the pipeline route and is studying the impact of washing sediment. “We take environmental stewardship very seriously," Beckham said in an email.
DHEC officials did not say whether they will cite Dominion for polluting the river and streams with sediment.
Under S.C. law, companies clearing land must take steps to control mud and dirt from eroding off construction sites during rain storms. But DHEC says oil and gas pipelines are exempt from some of those requirements.
"The question is what will be done about this,'' said Shelley Robbins, an official with the environmental group Upstate Forever.
Robbins, a pipeline critic, said she inspected the Dominion pipeline route in late April and flew over the site earlier this month. What she saw was a ribbon of exposed soil snaking through the foothills of South Carolina..
“They were sloppy,’’ Robbins said of Dominion's efforts to control soil erosion. “They promised us they would adhere to the highest level of construction standards and care, and they did not do that. We have steep unstable slopes. They did not make sure that those areas were stable.’’
Soil erosion is a major concern in growing states like South Carolina, where exposed earth can turn creeks red with mud after heavy rains.
In this case, Dominion left bare soil along the route for several months, said Robbins and Phillips of the Woodruff-Roebuck water system. Robbins alerted DHEC about the erosion, saying pipeline sediment had “suffocated’’ two adjacent streams.
“For probably three months, it was just barren soil,’’ Phillips said of the Dominion pipeline route.