A dangerous substance mucking up the Congaree River could be cleaned out.
State environmental regulators are instructing SCE&G to move forward with a plan to excavate the majority of coal tar where it is most prevalent in the river, according to a letter to the utility from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Coal tar is a goopy black byproduct of manufacturing gas, which SCE&G made at a plant near the river from the 1800s to the 1950s. The chemical leached into the river over that time, it’s believed. The toxins are hazardous to people’s health, as well as to fish and wildlife. About 40,000 tons of the toxic sludge sit in the riverbed, covering about 11 acres, The State reported in 2017.
The new approach brings back a project that was first proposed by the Department of Health and Environmental Control in 2013 that called for building temporary dams to remove the nearly 40,000 tons of toxic sludge. That plan was abandoned in 2016 due to cost and feasibility, and the next year regulators approved a new method to cap the reservoirs of coal tar with fabric and stone. Last year, the environmental protection agency said that the utility was misleading in its justification to throw out the removal project and pushed SCE&G to revive the plan to dig out the coal tar.
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Now that plan is about to be floated again and looks to be what SCE&G will be required to do. Previous estimates to remove the substance put the cost at $18.5 million.
An environmental group praised the state’s move.
“Congaree Riverkeeper has worked on the coal tar issue since the tar was discovered in the river in 2010, and has long advocated for the tar to be removed,” said Bill Stangler, head of the river advocacy group. “This new plan is a significant improvement from where we were just a year ago, and while there is a lot of work left to do, this is an important step in the right direction.”
A public meeting about the new plan is scheduled for April 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the Canal Room at EdVenture Children’s Museum in Columbia.