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Saluda River pollution discharges spark bipartisan fight against Carolina Water Service

Pressure to close an aging sewage treatment plant on the lower Saluda River continued to rise Friday as politicians and environmentalists urged an end to discharges into the scenic waterway.

A coalition of Democratic and Republican leaders announced a news conference Monday morning near the Saluda River, where they will urge that state regulators deny a discharge permit and force closure of the plant.

Meanwhile, Lexington’s mayor said the town is struggling to acquire the Carolina Water Service plant without customer rates going up.

Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said one way to resolve the problem is for the town to condemn the plant if the company won’t voluntarily agree to shut down the facility.

“We’ve got to start talking about condemnation. The town of Lexington can, and I think should, go ahead and condemn the facility,” Stangler said.

State Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control should show more leadership and shutter the Interstate 20 facility – which was supposed to connect with regional sewers 16 years ago.

“We wanted to get together and make a continued, sustained effort to call on DHEC to deny the permit,” Smith said of the Monday news conference, criticizing the agency’s lack of success in closing the plant. “What have you (DHEC) done to hold them accountable?”

Chairmen of the state Republican and Democratic parties, as well as a bipartisan group of legislators and city officials from metropolitan Columbia, are expected to attend Monday’s news conference along the river.

“The history of violations that have occurred is beyond explainable,” Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said. “It is time to handle this.”

Friday’s developments follow a public hearing this week that attracted 285 people, virtually all of whom appeared to oppose renewing a discharge permit for Carolina Water Service to continue running the I-20 plant. Many said the plant is a threat to the Saluda River, but DHEC officials said they don’t have the authority to force closure of the facility.

The issue has sparked passions because the sewer plant sits along a river many people believe is special and worthy of protection.

The lower Saluda is unusual in central South Carolina because it contains both a whitewater rapids area and a coldwater trout fishery, the result of releases from the Lake Murray dam. Kayakers regularly ply the river’s churning water near Riverbanks Zoo in Richland and Lexington counties. It is one of the few waterways in South Carolina with a state scenic river designation.

In dispute is a Carolina Water Service plant that has violated discharge limits about two dozen times when releasing wastewater into the river in recent years. The Congaree Riverkeeper organization, whose coverage area also includes the lower Saluda, has sued Carolina Water in federal court. The riverkeeper group argues that the plant should have closed long ago, as required by its discharge permit, and it has a history of pollution violations.

Companies associated with Utilities Inc., a national company that owns Carolina Water, were hit with 55 enforcement actions by DHEC from the early 1990s to 2013, The State newspaper reported in a series of stories two years ago. That’s more than any other business or government in South Carolina during the same time period, the newspaper reported.

Carolina Water Service’s operating permit for the plant expired years ago, but as they have with many other companies, DHEC regulators allow it to continue to operate under the old permit.

Carolina Water Service officials said this week they have tried to reach an agreement to connect with a regional sewer system but that negotiations with the town of Lexington have been unsuccessful. Lexington operates sewer lines in the area that feed into the regional system, run by the city of Cayce.

Carolina Water Service said discharges from the I-20 plant “regularly” meet or exceed permit limits.

“CWS has sought interconnection on multiple occasions in the past and its requests for interconnection have either been refused by the regional facility or denied by regulatory authority,” the company said in a statement this week. “CWS most recently attempted to initiate a potential interconnection with the town of Lexington for submission to the Public Service Commission, but was informed by the town in May of 2014 that it was not currently interested in an interconnection.”

Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said the dispute boils down to how much the town would have to pay to take over the Carolina Water Service system and close the I-20 treatment plant. He said the town has acted in good faith, but doesn’t want to strike a deal that would result in higher rates for sewer customers. He declined to say what amount of money is being discussed.

“They must realize they are not in a position to negotiate,” MacDougall said. “It’s time to get real and make this right. They’ve been an offender in the area for a long time.”

The plant serves about 2,400 customers near Lexington, which has about 20,000 residents.

State regulators are well aware of the concerns coming from both Stangler’s organization and legislators. Agency officials plan meetings with some legislators to discuss the matter, Smith and Courson said. DHEC also is taking comments through Sept. 1 from the public on whether it should issue a new permit for the sewage plant.

“DHEC recognizes the public’s interest in this matter and understands how critical our role is in protecting South Carolina's water quality,” the agency’s environmental director, Elizabeth Dieck, said in a statement earlier this week. “We are pleased with (Tuesday’s) turnout. All public comments will be taken into consideration in the final permit decision.”

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