SC regulators were warned about pollution at Saluda River park in May

State regulators were told in May that unsafe levels of bacteria had shown up in the Saluda River near a popular waterfront park.

But they didn't determine contamination was significant enough to warn the public until this week.

Regulators did not act until they confirmed high bacteria counts in the same area of Saluda Shoals Park where pollution had been documented May 20 by a local riverkeeper organization.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control issued a no-swim advisory Tuesday, saying a sewage-treatment plant breakdown – in June – caused poorly treated wastewater to flow out of a discharge pipe and into the river near the park’s public boat launching area.

DHEC’s failure to alert the public when problems first were reported in May drew criticism from several state legislators, who said the department should have erred on the side of caution and told the public at the time. The water-quality problems in May appear to have foreshadowed the pollution DHEC documented in June, they said.

“I’m kind of disappointed, ” said state Rep. Chip Huggins, whose district includes part of the park. “Anytime we have something that could be a potential hazard, people need to be aware of that.’’

Huggins, R-Lexington, and state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said warnings should have been issued last month because so many people visit Saluda Shoals Park.

The park is on the lower Saluda River, a state-designated scenic waterway widely used by boaters, fishermen and swimmers. Saluda Shoals, a 400-acre recreation area, draws more than 600,000 people a year and, on peak days, up to 750 to participate in water-related activities.

“I don’t know why all testing isn’t made available in real time when they have it,” Smith said. “We should look at publicizing that.’’

Sewage pollution in the Saluda has many people upset because it not only occurred at the park, but it also involves a utility with a history of environmental violations in South Carolina.

Utilities Inc. and companies it owns, including Carolina Water Service, have been sanctioned more times for environmental violations during the past 20 years than any other government, business or person in South Carolina, The State newspaper reported in 2013.

Carolina Water Service now is embroiled in a dispute over whether it should stop discharging into the Saluda from a wastewater plant at Interstate 20.

Carolina Water has apologized for the pollution at Saluda Shoals and said it has fixed equipment that led to the contaminated discharge, according to a statement the company issued Thursday. DHEC expects to have test results Friday that will show whether bacteria have dropped to safe levels.

DHEC officials confirmed Thursday that Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler had told them May 20 about elevated bacteria levels he found while sampling water near the boat launch. Stangler, riverkeeper for the Congaree and lower Saluda rivers, is certified by DHEC to sample for water pollution.

At the time, the department chose not to issue warnings because it did not think the elevated pollution levels were high enough or would last long enough to warrant a no-swim advisory, DHEC officials acknowledged.

In an interview with The State, DHEC water bureau chief David Baize said the agency suspected contamination near the boat launch came from stormwater runoff and would not be a continuing source of elevated bacteria in the water.

But DHEC received an anonymous tip June 10 that led the agency to check the Saluda River at the waterfront park. That is when DHEC found elevated bacteria levels near a sewage discharge pipe in the river at Saluda Shoals.

DHEC confirmed Tuesday the contamination was coming from a Carolina Water Service wastewater plant at Friarsgate in Irmo, agency officials said.

“Once we traced it back to the Friarsgate discharge, by that time, we could see there were obvious problems,’’ Baize said. “Now, we had more of an ongoing issue. So in this case, clearly there was going to be a longer period of time where there was going to be the potential for bacteria entering the water and an associated public-health concern.’’

Officials with the Irmo-Chapin Recreation Commission said they were told of Stangler’s findings in May, but it was up to DHEC to decide when and whether to issue warnings.

Elizabeth B. Taylor, the commission’s executive director, said Saluda Shoals has had little experience with bacteria in the water. The no-swim advisory is thought to be the first ever at the park.

“We would wait to hear from DHEC if they felt like it was a health risk,’’ Taylor said, adding, “We would probably be more sensitive to this now.’’