Coal tar cleanup draws complaints from skeptical crowd

Effort to dredge coal tar from the Congaree River is back on track

SCANA and DHEC have revived plans to remove toxic coal tar from the Congaree River in Columbia South Carolina. This video was produced in 2015 and looked at the original dredging plan. The new plan is a similar proposal, but scaled back slightly.
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SCANA and DHEC have revived plans to remove toxic coal tar from the Congaree River in Columbia South Carolina. This video was produced in 2015 and looked at the original dredging plan. The new plan is a similar proposal, but scaled back slightly.

The state’s plan to leave polluted coal tar in the Congaree River – instead of cleaning it up – drew a chorus of complaints Monday from people who favor getting rid of the nasty muck that’s coating the river bottom below the Gervais Street bridge.

At its first public session on the coal tar pollution since 2013, the state’s environmental agency said officials have tried to find a way to remove the coal tar, but so far, they have had no luck. A plan to dam up the river while the tar was excavated proved too difficult, which left the state little choice but to propose covering the goo with concrete and leaving it in place, regulators said.

But many at the meeting urged the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and SCE&G to look harder for solutions. SCE&G is responsible for the cleanup because coal tar drained into the river decades ago from a manufactured gas plant on land SCE&G now owns.

“We want it out of there,’’ said Columbia resident Jackson Wools, among the approximately 100 people who attended. “That’s what the public wants. That’s why we’re here tonight. We don’t want it capped. We want clean water, we want clean rivers. We want something we can enjoy.’’

Charlene Coleman, a representative of the outdoors group American Whitewater, said after the meeting she could not believe SCE&G can’t find an engineering solution to get rid of the coal tar.

“They’re escaping their responsibilities,’’ Coleman said. “There’s a way to do it. We made it to the moon.’’

Coal tar in the riverbed between the Gervais and Blossom street bridges is embedded in sediments several feet thick in places. DHEC says the material hasn’t polluted the water of the Congaree, but it can be hazardous for people who step in it or otherwise come in contact.

The coal tar can cause a stinging, burning sensation when it gets on people’s skin, DHEC officials told the crowd. But short of digging it up, the agency believes the best solution is to cover the material with concrete in an attempt to stabilize it. That’s not an ideal solution because the cap over the coal tar would have to be monitored for years, but DHEC’s Ken Taylor and SCE&G’s Bob Apple said they’ve found no other alternative.

“We are at our wits’ end,’’ Apple told the crowd.

Numerous soil and sediment samples have shown high levels of contamination in the riverbed from coal tar pollution, DHEC records show. The tar contains an array of chemicals, some hazardous to human health. Among the pollutants in the coal tar are carcinogens such as benzene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons.

Taylor said DHEC has made no final decision on whether to cap the material, and he said the agency is open to suggestions on how to remove the coal tar. The agency now is awaiting word on whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which did not send a representative to the meeting, will issue a permit to place a cap over the coal tar.

“It’s a complex problem, it’s a historic problem, it’s not going anywhere,’’ Taylor said. “The question is how do we best go forward and take care of it.’’

The Congaree River runs through the heart of Columbia. The city’s most visible river is popular with kayakers and fishermen, and many view it as a key to future economic development and growth.

John Elliott Gregory, a 30-year-old Columbia resident who works in real estate, is one of those. He said there “is too much’’ risk to future generations to leave the coal tar in place. He favors removing it.

“Being a young person, I am thoroughly excited about what could be along the river here in Columbia,’’ he said. “It’s going to be pretty disappointing if something like this holds back some development ... because we cut corners today. We are talking about decisions that have a long-term impact.’’

While the coal tar has been in the river for decades, DHEC officials say they learned about it in 2010 after a kayaker stepped in the material at a boat landing just below the Gervais Street bridge. The kayaker notified the agency, which prompted an investigation.

SCE&G had an $18 million plan to dig up the coal tar by erecting a 19-foot-tall temporary dam in the water to dry out the riverbed. The material would then have been excavated and trucked to an offsite disposal ground. But the Corps was unlikely to grant a permit for the work, in part because of concerns that river water would be pushed toward West Columbia and Cayce, causing flooding and erosion on the Congaree’s western side. The project also was made more difficult by a major flood in the fall of 2015 that deposited more sediment near the coal tar that would have to be dug up.

So DHEC urged SCE&G to look for another plan. Officials arrived at the capping plan during private meetings last year.

The Congaree runs from downtown Columbia and past Congaree National Park before merging with the Santee River system southeast of the capital city about 50 miles downstream. It is a shallow, rocky river formed by the confluence of the lower Saluda and Broad rivers in Columbia.