Unsafe bacteria levels disrupt swimming, tube rentals at Saluda Shoals

COLUMBIA, SC Some float trips have been suspended at a popular waterfront park and kayakers are being warned about pollution in the lower Saluda River following a sewage discharge that sent bacteria soaring to unsafe levels.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control issued an advisory Tuesday night against swimming in the river at Saluda Shoals Park, saying a private utility’s sewage treatment plant was to blame for the contamination. Carolina Water Service has a discharge pipe near the Saluda Shoals boat landing, where people launch watercraft and sometimes swim.

DHEC and park officials said the no-swim advisories are the first they can remember at Saluda Shoals, a regional park that draws more than 600,000 visitors annually.

The swimming advisory, which caused DHEC to post warning signs at the park, could not have come at a worse time. Summer is typically busy at Saluda Shoals as people seek to swim and boat on the river in front of the park. The lower Saluda River, between Lake Murray and the Congaree River, is a state-designated scenic river.

“We are very disappointed to be in this situation,’’ said Saluda Shoals park director Mark Smyers, who spent much of the day Wednesday fielding questions from people concerned about contamination at the park. “Our primary focus right now is to keep people safe. We’ll do what we have to do to keep from putting people at risk.’’

Smyers said the park is not renting tubes for float trips from the park until water quality problems clear up. Smyers said people using tubes to go down the river have too much contact with the water. Saluda Shoals still is renting kayaks and canoes, but encouraging people to paddle upstream and away from the area where the sewage contamination has come from, he said.

A key concern is people getting contaminated water in their mouths or in open cuts. People who swallow sewage tainted water run the risk of upset stomachs, while those with cuts can get infections.

“This is a tragedy,’’ Smyers said of the contamination.

DHEC blamed the elevated bacteria counts on the Carolina Water Service treatment plant at Friarsgate. Wastewater coming through a sewage pipe that discharges at Saluda Shoals Park did not meet safe standards, the department said.

Late Wednesday, DHEC released more details about the pollution, saying an anonymous tip led to the discovery of high bacteria levels in the Saluda. The June 10 tip said discolored wastewater was coming from a Carolina Water Service plant near Interstate 20. The agency found no problems initially, but “out of an abundance of caution’’ chose to do a broader investigation on part of the Saluda River near Saluda Shoals Park.

Water quality sampling on June 13 and June 15 revealed higher-than-normal bacteria levels in the river, DHEC said in an email Wednesday night. The agency found elevated bacteria levels at several spots, including the Friarsgate discharge pipe into the Saluda River, records show.

Agency officials said aeration equipment at the Friarsgate plant is not working properly and the system needs to do a better job of removing solids.

Department officials said they were continuing to investigate the cause of the malfunction at the Friarsgate sewage treatment plant.

Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler, who also monitors water quality on the lower Saluda River, said he warned DHEC about elevated bacteria levels he had discovered while sampling the Saluda about a month ago.

Agency officials told him they would look into his findings, “but I got no further information from the agency, even after I asked for a follow-up,’’ Stangler said in an email.

A question emerging Wednesday was whether DHEC should have issued public warnings about unsafe swimming conditions at Saluda Shoals in May, when Stangler gave the department his test results. The riverkeeper posted a warning on its website last month about elevated bacteria counts at Saluda Shoals.

“They should have stressed this a month ago,’’ said Regan Norris, a board member of the Congaree Riverkeeper organization, referring to DHEC.

DHEC’s statement Wednesday night said the agency found problems as a result of the anonymous tip and special investigation.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Carolina Water Service said the company is aware of the problem and is working closely with DHEC to address concerns. Carolina Water Service officials have said they work hard to provide clean water and to release properly treated wastewater.

The company released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that it is modifying a “biological treatment process’’ to reduce bacteria levels. The company expected the work to be completed Wednesday. Carolina Water’s statement said the company took “immediate steps’’ to minimize any impact to the Saluda River after learning about the state test results.

“We are taking this matter very seriously,’’ company president Rick Durham said in the statement. “Our operators and staff living in the area know the importance of the Lower Saluda and we are genuinely and deeply apologetic for the inconvenience and concern created by these recent elevated bacteria levels found in the river,” the statement said.

Carolina Water’s Friarsgate plant, which serves parts of the Irmo area, has had other troubles in recent years. State records show the Friarsgate plant spilled at least 5,000 gallons of sewage in 2013. On May 19 of this year, the Friarsgate plant experienced another spill, according to a sanitary sewer overflow report from DHEC. A line at the plant broke, the report said.

Carolina Water Service and its parent company, Utilities Inc., have had a history of troubles with state regulators in South Carolina. Utilities Inc. and related companies have been sanctioned more times for environmental regulations during the past 20 years than any other government, business or person in South Carolina., The State newspaper reported in 2013.

In addition to questions about whether the public should have been warned sooner by DHEC, the elevated bacteria levels renewed talk about getting all sewage discharge pipes out of the lower Saluda. A plan developed more than 25 years ago called for discharge pipes to be removed, but utilities have been slow to do that.

Carolina Water Service and the Congaree Riverkeeper now are involved in a fight over whether the company must quit discharging to the Saluda River from its Interstate 20 treatment plant. The riverkeeper has sued to stop the discharges.