Sewage in the Saluda deserves more attention, politicians, river advocates say

The lower Saluda River, fed by the waters of Lake Murray, is a cold-watery trout fishery in an area of the state where trout aren’t normally found. River advocates want to eliminate sewage discharges to protect water quality.
The lower Saluda River, fed by the waters of Lake Murray, is a cold-watery trout fishery in an area of the state where trout aren’t normally found. River advocates want to eliminate sewage discharges to protect water quality. sfretwell@thestate.com

Keeping sewage out of the Saluda River has been an elusive goal for a quarter century, despite ever-growing interest in the river as a watery playground.

Now, after a recent sewage discharge sent bacteria levels soaring at a public park, some lawmakers and river protection advocates are pledging renewed efforts to get sewer pipes out of the lower Saluda.

Among other things, they favor holding a public meeting, or river summit, to discuss how they can jump-start the long-stalled plan, which calls for connecting the smaller systems to larger, regional sewers. Some also want to step up state efforts to close one problematic sewage plant near Interstate 20.

Recreational users of the river have pushed since at least 1990 to remove sewage pipes from the lower Saluda because it is considered a special waterway. For a variety of reasons, that never happened.

“We have not had the kind of progress that many of us want to see,” said state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland. “We need to take stock of what is going on and what it is going to take to make these changes.’’

Smith, Sens. John Courson, R-Richland, Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington, and Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, as well as representatives of the Congaree Riverkeeper and Trout Unlimited, said a meeting could help explain why progress has been so slow – and it could inspire action.

The lower Saluda River is a state-designated scenic waterway known for Spanish moss, icy shoals, whitewater rapids and trout fishing. It extends about 11 miles from Lake Murray to the Broad River and generally enjoys good water quality – but not always. Six private wastewater plants that serve homes and businesses collectively send millions of gallons of treated sewage into the river every day.

Although federal law requires the sewage to be cleaned up to safe standards, plants sometimes exceed their limits. Sewage pipes also break and send raw wastewater into the river.

“We would support anything that our elected officials could do,’’ Saluda River Trout Unlimited board member Ken Kinard said. “We’ve got 300 members in our chapter who fish the river regularly. They wade in it. It’s a special concern to be wading out there in polluted water.’’

Shealy said she doesn’t remember people spending much time on the Saluda River as she was growing up. But that has changed, she said.

Research by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources shows that more than 60,000 people visited the Saluda to swim, fish or float 10 years ago – and that number has likely increased, officials say.

Saluda Shoals Park, an expansive recreation area that borders the river, attracts about 600,000 people each year, park officials say. Businesses that rent tubes and kayaks have been established in the past 25 years because of the river’s popularity.

Setzler and Shealy said they favor a meeting to discuss the lower Saluda, but those have been held before. Cleaning up the lower Saluda starts with Carolina Water Service, they said.

Carolina Water, which records show operates three of the six private wastewater plants that discharge in the Saluda basin, is part of a corporation that was subject to more state environmental enforcement actions than any other in South Carolina from the early 1990s through late 2013, according to records obtained by The State newspaper.

In June, state regulators said the company pumped poorly treated sewage into the Saluda, which prompted them to issue health warnings against swimming near Saluda Shoals Park for two weeks. Swimming in polluted water can cause upset stomachs and infections to cuts.

Carolina Water recently apologized for the problem at Saluda Shoals. The company said it had fixed the Friarsgate treatment plant that state regulators say caused bacteria to rise to unsafe levels in the river.

“You have to deal with the worst offenders first,’’ said Setzler, who grew up playing in the Saluda River. “Those who are not complying with what their permits allow, or what they are supposed to be doing ... you deal with those first.’’

Setzler said the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control needs “to take strong, affirmative action’’ against Carolina Water Service. Last year, DHEC proposed denying a discharge permit for another Carolina Water treatment plant at I-20 after hundreds of people showed up at a meeting to complain about the facility’s discharges. The issue remains unresolved.

Courson said that meeting focused on the I-20 issue, but he thinks another meeting to talk about the broader discharge issues would be well attended – and it would help DHEC and lawmakers. No one was sure last week how much money it would take to tie small wastewater systems into regional sewers and whether funding could come from Legislature or local governments.

Carolina Water declined comment in response to questions about its interest in connecting its systems to regional sewers, saying a lawsuit it is involved in remains unresolved.

The lawsuit by the Congaree Riverkeeper group could help force the I-20 discharge out of the river, said Bill Stangler, who heads the organization. If a federal court agrees with the riverkeeper group, it could require Carolina Water Service to tie in with the Lexington-Cayce regional system that discharges to the Congaree River. The riverkeeper organization monitors water quality issues in the Congaree, Saluda and Broad rivers.

The Congaree, which is bigger than the lower Saluda, has two major sewer plants run by the cities of Columbia and Cayce. While sewer spills sometimes occur when pipes and equipment serving those plants break, planners say the two big Congaree wastewater systems generally are better equipped to treat sewage than the small plants on the Saluda.

“It seems to me that everybody in the Columbia metro region supports getting these small, substandard sewage plants brought in line,’’ said Blan Holman, an attorney representing the Congaree Riverkeeper. “I think there is momentum to figure that out.’’

Nonetheless, few substantial discharge pipes have been removed from the Saluda, even though a regional sewage plan says small wastewater plants must tie in with regional public sewers when they become available. A 1990 Saluda River task force also recommended eliminating domestic wastewater discharges from the lower Saluda. A handful of industrial discharges on the river have not been a focus of the effort.

But privately owned wastewater systems in some cases have been reluctant to connect with regional systems that discharge in the Congaree River. In others, regional wastewater systems either did not have capacity to take on sewage from private companies, or they won’t negotiate a fair price with private companies, some wastewater companies have said.

Complicating the matter is that while DHEC favors closing small plants in favor of regional sewer systems, the state Public Service Commission also has a say in how such a deal could affect the rates of customers taken in by regional wastewater systems.

Carolina Water Service and the town of Lexington now are locked in a major battle over whether the company will tie in with Lexington’s wastewater lines. Both argue that the other side is being unreasonable on how to structure a deal to close the Carolina Water treatment plant at I-20.

Federal enforcement data compiled by the Congaree Riverkeeper show that Carolina Water Service’s three Saluda basin sewage plants have violated discharge limits 31 times during the past five years. The company’s I-20 plant has had 19 of those violations, the federal data show.

Carolina Water isn’t the only company with discharge violations. Two plants run by Ni Pacolet Milliken Utilities have had 32 violations during the same five-year period, according to the riverkeeper.

Ni Pacolet’s Alpine plant caused a major problem in the Saluda eight years ago when it spilled partially treated sewage into a tributary during the middle of the summer. Bacteria levels in the Saluda rose to more than 200 times above the standard considered safe for swimming.

Ni Pacolet Milliken did not respond directly to questions from The State newspaper about its discharges or whether it would be willing to tie in with a regional sewer system. But a statement issued late Friday said the company supports “the goals behind regionalization.’’

The company acquired the Woodland and Alpine treatment plants in the St. Andrews area above Riverbanks Zoo about a year ago. The statement said the company has a history of buying utility assets, upgrading them and taking “pride in the quality of our operations.’’

While some companies are accused of not wanting to connect with regional sewers, big wastewater systems can’t always handle the flow from new customers.

Keith Parnell, who heads the DSI utility company, said he wanted to tie in with Columbia’s regional sewer system more than 12 years ago, but the city turned him down. It did not have enough capacity in its sewer pipes to accommodate more wastewater, Parnell said he was told.

As a result, Parnell said he built a new sewage plant, pumping more than $2 million into the facility. The plant has had the fewest discharge violations in the past five years – one – of any of the six plants on the lower Saluda, according to the Congaree Riverkeeper’s assessment of federal enforcement data.

Parnell said he does not believe DSI is a threat to the Saluda because of the improvements that have been made. But he said he would be willing to talk to the city of Columbia if it wanted to purchase all or parts of his sewer system to tie in with the city’s regional system.

His company’s system serves about 1,500 customers in the Dutch Square area. Columbia utilities director Joey Jaco said improvements might be needed in the city system near the DSI wastewater plant, but Columbia is open to discussion.

“If the city of Columbia was interested, I’ll talk with them,’’ Parnell said. “But I still have a good bit of money owed to finish paying for this thing.

“I just can’t walk away.’’