South Carolina's environmental protection agency is pushing SCE&G to revive a coal tar cleanup plan for the Congaree River after saying the power company provided misleading information on whether the cleanup was feasible.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers say the Corps never concluded that the project could not be done, as SCE&G contended in justifying its 2016 decision to abandon the cleanup. The Corps' position that it never made any conclusions is included in documents obtained by a river protection group and The State newspaper.
"Due to this new information, SCDHEC would like SCE&G to consider renewed efforts to pursue a modified removal action approach," the agency said in a June 22 letter to the power company. DHEC is seeking a meeting to discuss the issue.
DHEC's letter not only raises the question of why the power company abandoned plans to excavate the coal tar, but it rekindles chances that tons of the noxious goo could be dug up from the river.
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SCE&G, which could save $11 million by avoiding the cleanup project, said in an email to The State that it would consider doing what DHEC requires, although that could take time.
Questions about SCE&G's position on the river cleanup are the latest that have surfaced about the company since last year. The utility, which serves some 700,000 South Carolina electricity customers, has been hammered by lawmakers for what they said were misleading statements about the failure of a nuclear expansion project that has cost customers some $2 billion.
While that project affects customers' pocketbooks, the coal tar issue affects people who swim, fish and boat on the Congaree River, a rocky waterway that runs adjacent to Columbia's Vista entertainment district.
Kayakers who have stepped in the tar have complained that it burned their skin. The tar contains a host of toxic pollutants that could be hurting water quality and fish in the Congaree, some river advocates have said.
The material leaked out of a manufactured gas plant on Huger Street in the early 1900s and coated the river bottom between the Gervais Street and Blossom Street bridges. Few people knew about the tar until a kayaker stepped in the muck about eight years ago while boating in the river near a landing at Senate Street, just below the Gervais Street bridge.
That prompted a DHEC investigation and, ultimately, plans by SCE&G to build a huge, temporary dam to dry out part of the river so it could excavate the coal tar and remove it.
But SCE&G later said the project was too difficult to pull off. A key argument was that the Corps likely would not issue a permit for the massive dam to do the work. A 2015 flood also sent sediment downriver, making the cleanup more difficult, the company had said.
Instead, the utility proposed to put stones and fabric over the river bottom to hold the tar in place. That would save SCE&G as much as $11 million. The Corps agreed to permit that plan last fall.
“We have spent six years working to develop a plan for removal of the material,’’ the company said in an email to The State newspaper last year. “Unfortunately, there simply is no strategy for removal that is viable from an engineering standpoint and for which we can obtain the necessary permits.”
Rhonda O'Banion, a spokeswoman for SCE&G, said Thursday that her company initially sought to get rid of the coal tar and still wants to do so, if it can be done.
"We have continued to hold the position that we prefer, and would pursue, any feasible remediation plan to remove the material that could be fully permitted,'' she said in an email. "We will certainly do what DHEC directs us to do, including reconsidering a modified approach for remediation. However, starting the permitting process all over again would significantly delay any work that could be done to address the material in the river.''
River protection advocates, who have threatened to sue to force the cleanup, said they were encouraged by DHEC’s renewed push for the tar to be excavated.
"We have long stated that it is the best solution to this problem,'' Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said in a prepared statement. "SCE&G is responsible for the pollution and is responsible for doing everything possible to restore the river and ensure its long term health.''
The power company abandoned the coal tar excavation work in 2016 at DHEC’s request, after the Corps of Engineers raised questions about the project, according to a March 19 letter from the utility’s Thomas Effinger to the Corps of Engineers.
"In effect, SCDHEC requested that SCE&G pursue and obtain a (federal) permit for a sediment cap,'' Effinger's letter said.
But Stangler said DHEC's recommendation that SCE&G abandon the excavation several years ago was based on information from SCE&G, not from the Corps of Engineers. Now, the state agency has information directly from the Corps that prompted its change of position, Stangler said.
"They were taking what SCE&G was saying at face value,'' Stangler said.
The next step is for SCE&G to work with the Corps on plans to clean up the river, DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said.