Mud pollution clogged a drinking water system. Now, Dominion Energy is in hot water

Dominion Energy pipeline route through SC’s Upstate. Critics say mud from the project flowed into creeks, but the company says it’s straightened out the mess
Dominion Energy pipeline route through SC’s Upstate. Critics say mud from the project flowed into creeks, but the company says it’s straightened out the mess

Since acquiring one of South Carolina’s major power companies this year, Dominion Energy has worked to improve the negative image SCE&G had developed for high electricity bills and a failed nuclear project.

But Dominion, a Virginia-headquartered energy giant, recently had to explain why the company’s pipeline division broke South Carolina’s pollution control law when it let muddy, sediment-filled water run into a creek and an Upstate river that thousands of people rely on for drinking water.

After months of investigation, state regulators have fined Dominion $4,200 for letting sediment run off a pipeline project the company was building in the Upstate. State regulators say the company illegally discharged sediment along the natural gas pipeline’s 55-mile long route between Spartanburg and Lake Greenwood.

The sediment runoff was so significant that a Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman said the pollution contributed to troubles at an Upstate water utility. At one point, the Woodruff Roebuck Water District had to buy water from another utility because sediment was clogging a river intake pipe near Spartanburg.

Not everyone thinks the fine is stiff enough for a multi-billion dollar corporation, questioning whether it will do anything to make the company obey environmental laws.

Still, critics are glad DHEC took some action against the energy company.

Dominion, one of the nation’s biggest utilities with about 7.5 million customers in 18 states, has in the past year become a major player in the production of energy in South Carolina. The company acquired SCE&G, the power company that serves Columbia and Charleston. It had purchased a pipeline company from SCE&G’s parent company about five years ago.

Shelley Robbins, Upstate Forever’s energy director, said Dominion needs to do a better job complying with environmental laws. Robbins discovered the erosion problems.

Dominion “was in clear violation’’ and should never have allowed the pollution to run off the property, Robbins said. The pipeline is near the North and South Tyger rivers, where the Woodruff-Roebuck Water District draws from.

The pipeline runoff occurred at about the same time the district was having to buy water from another utility because an intake pipe clogged with mud. A DHEC official said last year that the runoff from the project “had to have contributed’’ to the Woodruff water system’s troubles.

Land along the pipeline’s route “had been sitting there raw for months,’’ Robbins said. “The majority of our drinking water is from surface water. And in general, if you choke smaller streams and tributaries with sediment, you destroy the entire (creek) system.’’

In an email Monday night, DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said the agency had not found the sediment pollution from Dominion’s pipeline hurt aquatic life in Ferguson Creek or the South Tyger River.

Dominion said in an email Tuesday that the erosion problems occurred along a section of pipeline in Spartanburg County. The company says it has since stabilized the area and learned from the experience. It also surveyed the entire 55-mile long pipeline. Dominion blamed a contractor it hired, promising to improve procedures so similar problems don’t happen again, state records show.

“Dominion Energy has used this experience as part of continuous improvement efforts on all projects to design protections to prevent the potential for any sediment to move outside of construction rights of way,’’ spokeswoman Kristen Beckham said Tuesday morning.

Sediment pollution is an issue across the country as newly developing land is cleared, whether for pipelines or other purposes, such as housing developments. If developers don’t take precautions to stabilize soil, the dirt will run off the property when rains fall. Property owners sometimes complain about sediment pollution from development upstream.

Robbins said that while she’s glad DHEC took notice of Dominion’s sediment violations, the agency should have done more. And she questioned whether the Dominion sediment pollution is a forerunner of environmental problems from other pipeline projects planned for South Carolina.

To extend pipelines, companies must often clear land along the route, and exposed soil can allow mud to erode into creeks. Pipelines that carry natural gas also can leak or even explode if not monitored properly.

In addition to the Upstate project that drew a fine, Dominion also plans to add pipelines through eastern South Carolina. There, the company will add a 15-mile pipeline project that could affect about 65 landowners whose property is in the path, officials say.

“A mere $4,200: this is a terrible message to send them, especially considering they are planning another pipeline project in Florence right along the Pee Dee River,’’ Robbins said an email to top DHEC officials last week. “And then there will be another and another, and they have no incentive to do a better job.’’

Low environmental fines are nothing new at DHEC. The agency has been criticized in the past for issuing fines that some say are too small to deter future pollution violations. Last spring, The State reported that DHEC’s average fines for drinking water violations were less than $1,000.

DHEC’s Renwick said the $4,200 fine against Dominion for sediment pollution was “consistent with those assessed for similar stormwater violations.’’

Environmental concerns about Dominion pipeline projects have surfaced before. In addition to the Upstate project, Dominion has in recent years run a large natural gas pipeline through eastern Richland County. Some residents in the pipeline’s path expressed concerns.

People along the way of Dominion’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline in Virginia have complained about the disruption of rural communities and erosion that could ruin creeks, many of them in the southern Appalachian mountains.

The project would run from West Virginia to southeastern North Carolina, near the South Carolina border. Dominion officials have said they may extend the Atlantic Coast pipeline into South Carolina.

Dominion Energy closed its deal to acquire SCE&G and SCANA earlier this year. SCANA had been under fire after it spent billions of dollars on a failed nuclear project that drove up power bills.

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Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.