The state’s environmental protection agency has changed its mind and plans to deny a sewage discharge permit for the troubled Carolina Water Service treatment plant on the scenic Saluda River.
In a news release issued at 4:50 p.m. Friday, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said it does not plan to grant the permit because it favors tying the company’s Interstate 20 plant in with a regional sewage system.
Friday’s decision is expected, at some point, to force Carolina Water Service to hook up customers with the regional system operated by the city of Cayce and the town of Lexington. It was unknown Friday when the connection would happen or when the I-20 treatment plant would close.
The move comes after 20 years of public criticism of both the utility and state regulators for failing to shut down the plant near Columbia.
Lexington has sewage pipes just a few feet from the I-20 treatment plant, but negotiations between the town and the utility to connect sewer customers to the regional plant have been at a stalemate for years.
The Carolina Water Service plant has a string of discharge violations, but as recently as last month, DHEC was planning to grant the company another permit to continue releasing wastewater into the Saluda.
That sparked a public outcry and threats by lawmakers to pass a law that would deny the permit if DHEC did not change its mind. The lower Saluda is a state designated scenic river that has been targeted for special protection because of its unique characteristics.
DHEC officials indicated Friday that the avalanche of opposition to a new permit changed their position.
“Based upon consideration of the public comments and based upon additional review, the department has made a preliminary decision to deny reissuing this permit,” a fact sheet issued Friday by the department said.
“DHEC has been a longstanding proponent of regionalizing wastewater treatment in Lexington County and eliminating the Carolina Water Service I-20 plant’s discharges into the Saluda River,” Director Catherine Heigel said in a prepared statement.
A Carolina Water Service spokesman was not prepared to say if the company would challenge DHEC’s proposal to deny the permit. The public has until Oct. 12 to comment on the latest plan. But a company statement Friday said the utility’s next step is to strike a deal with the town of Lexington and connect the I-20 plant.
This “action signals that an interconnection is now the only course deemed acceptable to the DHEC staff,” the company said. “CWS is ready to follow that course, as it has been for more than twenty years.”
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said the DHEC decision “really kind of forces the issue. We have to take it as a positive and get back to the table and work something out.”
Carolina Water filed paperwork with the state Public Service Commission this week, seeking approval to connect with Lexington. Any agreement between Lexington and the private utility would need authorization from the PSC, which looks at such connections to ensure sewage bills don’t rise too sharply for customers.
Carolina Water has been under DHEC orders for two decades to hook into a regional system when it became available. That system was available about 16 years ago, but for a variety of reasons, DHEC never managed to force a connection that many say would protect the Saluda River from polluting sewage discharges.
Nearly 300 people attended an Aug. 25 hearing to protest plans for a new permit, saying the river is too special to continue using as a sewage disposal site. Days later, a bipartisan group of legislators held a riverside press conference to blast DHEC’s proposal and question how the agency never managed to force the hook up.
The lower Saluda River is unusual in central South Carolina. Fed by Lake Murray’s cold water, the Saluda supports a trout fishery in a part of the state where other rivers are too warm for the fish to survive. The river also includes a series of whitewater rapids more like those found in the mountains.
DHEC’s fact sheet said the agency is not allowed by law to issue new discharge permits to utilities whose old permits eventually required connections to regional sewage systems. Still, until Friday’s announcement, DHEC was ready to award a new permit.
Lawmakers and environmentalists who were incensed by DHEC’s original plan to issue a new permit on the Saluda said they were relieved to hear the agency had reversed its position.
“I’m very pleased,” state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, said. “I think it is indicative that this is a concern about the environment and economics and health in South Carolina.”
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said it’s not every day that DHEC denies permits for industry, so the department’s decision shows the importance of ending discharges into the Saluda River. Sewage discharges, even when treated, can lower oxygen levels in rivers. Sewage plants also are vulnerable to spills, particularly when heavy rains overwhelm their capacity to treat wastewater. Such discharges can kill fish and aquatic life, while endangering public health.
“This is the right decision and a gutsy decision to do this,” Smith said. “It will have tremendous support from the Midlands community and leadership.”
Smith and Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said moving the Carolina Water Service I-20 discharge out of the Saluda could act as a catalyst to remove other sewage pipes from the river. About a half dozen other sewage plants also release treated wastewater into the lower Saluda, despite a plan 25 years ago to remove all of the sewage pipes.
“We should eliminate these domestic wastewater discharges and really give the people the natural treasure that they deserve,” said Stangler, whose organization has sued DHEC in an attempt to stop the Saluda River discharges from the I-20 plant. “We are closer now than we’ve ever been. We’ve got a few steps left to take to do it, but we can seize upon this momentum.”
DHEC has said that regional sewage systems are preferable because small facilities have trouble complying with a maze of environmental protection rules.
“We support the efforts of 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 and to ensure the needs of the 2,100 customers are addressed,” said DHEC Director Heigel’s statement.
The I-20 plant has released wastewater into the Saluda River in violation of state pollution standards at least 20 times in recent years, sparking a federal lawsuit by environmentalists. The company and related businesses also have had a troubled history of complying with environmental laws in South Carolina during the past two decades, according to Department of Health and Environmental Control enforcement records analyzed by The State newspaper for a series of stories two years ago.