Legislators say they’ll close sewage plant along Saluda if DHEC won’t

Columbia area legislators said Monday they will take steps to put a troubled sewage treatment plant along the lower Saluda River out of business if the state’s environmental protection agency doesn’t do so.

At a news conference on the banks of the state-designated scenic river, lawmakers said the Carolina Water Service plant has been allowed to remain open far longer than it should have been.

The plant has been under state orders since the 1990s to tie in with a regional sewage system but has never done so for a variety of reasons. It has had about 20 pollution discharge violations in recent years, according to a riverkeeper organization that has sued to close the plant.

“If DHEC doesn’t deny the permit, we will do it legislatively in January,’’ Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Discharging treated sewage into the lower Saluda generates concern because many people consider it a special river – filled with trout and whitewater rapids.

Courson likened Carolina Water Service, whose parent company is headquartered in the Midwest, to waste disposal operations and other out-of-state companies that have left a nasty legacy in South Carolina through the years.

“We are very tired of companies outside of South Carolina using this state as a dumping ground, (with) the primary reason of financial benefit, not really caring about what happens to the state (or) our environment. It’s time for it to stop.’’

Reps. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, and James Smith, D-Richland, said they are working on legislation that would force some smaller sewage plants to connect with regional wastewater systems when regional systems become available. Quinn said it’s frustrating that the Department of Health and Environmental Control has not forced Carolina Water to connect with a regional sewage system established by the town of Lexington and the city of Cayce.

“If DHEC gives them a permit, we’ve got to rethink how we do this,’’ said Quinn, who joined a chorus of Republican and Democratic lawmakers saying DHEC should deny the permit for Carolina Water. “Everyone knows this company was supposed to tie on to the regional system many years ago.’’

DHEC has proposed a new permit it says contains tougher discharge standards, but that plan has plenty of detractors. About 300 people attended a hearing last week to protest. Critics say the new permit contains language that would actually make it easier for Carolina Water to continue discharging.

Carolina Water Service, in addition to violations at its I-20 plant, is part of a larger company with an extensive history of environmental violations in South Carolina. Utilities Inc., and related companies including Carolina Water, were hit with 55 enforcement orders by DHEC from the early 1990s to 2013, according to agency records reviewed by The State newspaper for a series of stories two years ago. The number of violations topped any other company or government in South Carolina during the same time, the newspaper found.

Carolina Water Service and DHEC issued statements Monday saying they are working on the matter. The utility’s statement said it has repeatedly attempted to work out an agreement to hook up with the regional system, but has been rebuffed by the town of Lexington, a partner in the system. Lexington has said the company is being unreasonable.

“CWS understands and shares the concerns of legislators and the public regarding the health of the lower Saluda River but believes strongly that they are misdirected at the company and DHEC,’’ Carolina Water’s statement said.

Fed by the cold waters of Lake Murray, the lower Saluda boasts a trout fishery in an area of the state where rivers are typically too warm for trout. The river also features whitewater rapids that draw paddlers from across the Southeast. The lower Saluda runs past Riverbanks Zoo, one of the Columbia area’s top tourist attractions.

Sen. Ronnie Cromer, R-Newberry, said he’s come to appreciate the special nature of the lower Saluda because of the trout fishing, which he said has brought acquaintances of his from Georgia to Columbia. Trout populations have adapted to the river since they were first stocked there decades ago. The fish now are beginning to reproduce in the lower Saluda, he said.

“They tell me that the trout fishing here on the Saluda River is much better than you would find in North Carolina, believe it or not,’’ Cromer said, asking DHEC to “please save this great asset that we have here in the Midlands and please deny this permit to continue discharge.’’

Carolina Water’s Interstate 20 plant is among about a half-dozen sewage discharge facilities along the lower Saluda. For a quarter century, the facilities have been targeted in regional plans that seek to eliminate all discharges from the scenic river. The plans say the lower Saluda River wastewater plants should connect with regional sewage systems, which proponents say would protect the Saluda.

DHEC says if it denies the Carolina Water permit, someone would have to manage wastewater generated by the more than 2,000 customers of the I-20 plant. The agency says it can’t force Carolina Water Service to tie in with Lexington, as the Congaree Riverkeeper organization contends.

“DHEC continues to support the elimination of the CWS/I-20 plant discharge and will move quickly to reach a final decision to deny or reissue the permit renewal,’’the agency said in a prepared statement. “DHEC also recognizes that even if a new permit is denied, the facility cannot cease operation until state and local leaders help reach an agreement on how to manage the wastewater flow from the 2,100 customers the system serves. We look forward to continue working with the legislature, the town of Lexington, the Central Midlands Council of Governments, the Riverkeeper and others to make the elimination of this discharge into the scenic Lower Saluda River a reality.”

Carolina Water said it “welcomes any effort by any interested party to remove the previous roadblocks to interconnection.’’

Others attending Monday’s news conference included Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, and Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, as well as Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat. The state chairs of both the Republican and Democratic parties also spoke against a new discharge permit for the wastewater plant.