Environment

Google gets OK to siphon water for SC plant. But will that deplete drinking water?

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control granted Google permission Wednesday to pump 549 million gallons of water out of the ground each year to cool servers at its sprawling plant in Berkeley County.

DHEC’s decision is the latest development in a bitter fight over whether the company should get state approval to withdraw from a major groundwater source that, critics say, is dwindling and in jeopardy of being further depleted.

But DHEC says the withdrawals are justified under the state’s groundwater law.

According to a letter to the company Wednesday, a top DHEC regulator said Google must adhere to conditions in the permit or it could lose its DHEC license. The company can’t exceed the permitted amount to be withdrawn without facing the loss of its permit, according to a letter from DHEC water permitting section manager Alex Butler.

The permit expires in 2023.

Groundwater withdrawals are an issue of increasing concern in South Carolina as the state grows and more demands are put on aquifers, the large subterranean water supplies that permeate the state’s coastal plain. In addition to Google’s request in the Charleston area, mega farms in central South Carolina have been under scrutiny over the amount of groundwater they use to irrigate crops each summer.

Google and some Lowcountry business interests, including the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, said they were pleased with DHEC’s decision after months of disputes over the company’s use of water for cooling. Google, which is expanding its facility in Berkeley County, says studies show groundwater supplies won’t be hurt and the company will be a good steward of the water.

““We strive to build sustainability into everything that we do, and our data centers are no different,” Google said in a statement late Wednesday. “We’ve been proud to call South Carolina home for more than ten years, and we’re proud of the investments that we’ve made here, including more than $2 billion in capital investment, supporting employment opportunities, municipal improvements, educational programs and local nonprofits.’’

But others weren’t buying those arguments. Critics said Google could get cooling water from area rivers, rather than groundwater that people need for drinking.

Clay Duffie, manager of the Mount Pleasant Waterworks, said he had opposed the permit, as had a local advisory committee in the Charleston area. He said he expected DHEC’s decision because the agency had already granted preliminary approval.

“I don’t have a beef against Google itself, but I don’t think it is appropriate to use pristine groundwater for cooling computers, versus providing that water for people,’’ said Duffie, whose utility pulls water from the ground and a Lowcountry river. “We are obviously concerned about the long term, safe sustainable yield of that aquifer.’’

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