Utility fined for sewage spill in Saluda River

A federal agency has fined Alpine Utilities Inc. $14,000 for a sewage spill that fouled the Saluda River and caused an uproar in the Midlands two years ago.

The Environmental Protection Agency penalty brings to $39,000 the amount of state and federal fines levied against Alpine for the July 2008 sewage leak.

River protection advocates said Wednesday they are glad the company is being held accountable. But they question whether the penalties are stiff enough.

"It's too cheap," said Charlene Coleman, an official with the recreational group American Whitewater. "It's the same as a pro football player who makes $100 million and they fine him $25,000 for doing something stupid. Do you think that really hurts?"

Attempts to reach Robin Dial, Alpine's president, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

The sewage spill created a furor in 2008. A Department of Health and Environmental Control official identified a malfunction at the Alpine plant but did not immediately follow up.

Wastewater later was found polluting parts of a five-mile stretch of the Saluda River, including the popular white-water rapids near Riverbanks Zoo. Bacteria levels soared in the river. Some swimmers and kayakers complained of illness.

DHEC officials since have fined Alpine $25,000 and pledged to improve their public notice efforts.

While some expected the EPA to hit Alpine with a heavier fine, spokesman Carl Terry said the agency followed its enforcement policies in assessing the penalty.

"This is not something that is arbitrarily done," Terry said.

The public - and Alpine - have until Feb. 22 to challenge the fine if they disagree with it.

Alpine is accused of failing to follow federal limits on bacteria, phosphorous and ammonia nitrogen at its Stoop Creek plant in the St. Andrews area, according to an EPA public notice.

Alan Mehrzad, riverkeeper for the Saluda, Broad and Congaree rivers, said he thinks the fine could have been heavier, but he's glad state and federal authorities took notice of the Alpine leak.

"Whatever harm in water quality that caused, it really hurt the public's confidence in the safety and cleanliness of our waterways," Mehrzad said. "You can't really put a dollar amount on that."

Coleman and Mehrzad said the 2008 spill should be weighed in any decision to give Alpine a new wastewater discharge permit. Alpine serves about 5,500 homes in the St. Andrews area and is permitted to legally discharge 1.7 million gallons a day. Critics say the plant eventually should close and its customers be tied into a regional system.

DHEC has proposed issuing a new permit for the company's Stoop Creek plant and will hold a public hearing Feb. 25 at the agency's office on Bull Street.

Adam Myrick, a spokesman for DHEC, said the agency is barred by state law from using a company's enforcement history to deny a wastewater discharge permit. But he said that information can be used in setting limits on discharges in the new permit.