August 7, 2008

Saluda River Sewage Spill: State Faulted for Response

By Tim Flach, The State, Columbia, S.C.

Aug. 7--State health officials' handling of a sewage spill into the lower Saluda River came under fire Wednesday as contamination continues to jeopardize recreation.

Gerrit Jobsis of American Rivers faulted DHEC for not watching Alpine Utilities from the start of a spill from a plant that serves 5,500 homes and businesses in the St. Andrews area.

"There needs to be better protection of public health," said Jobsis, Southeast regional director for the environmental advocacy group. "They need to change the way they do business."

His assessment came as the latest tests of the river taken Monday show contamination has fallen but remains nearly triple the level considered safe.

Thom Berry, spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control declined to respond directly to Jobsis' comments.

But he said the agency moved quickly when it learned of the spill. State officials also believe an upcoming investigation of what happened will answer questions about their response. Federal officials might be called in to help in that investigation.

American Rivers last year rated the state's disclosure of sewage spills in public waterways as insufficient. State health officials insist they make information about dangerous spills public as soon as possible.

Jobsis said DHEC should be more sensitive to safeguarding the lower Saluda because it is a center of recreation.

"DHEC needs to pay more attention to rivers that are sources of high-value recreation like the Saluda," he said. "When it comes to rivers like that, they should be very protective of water quality and public health."

He said the spill should encourage a fresh look at the decade-old idea of ending sewage discharges into a river popular for swimming, wading, boating and fishing, he said.

"This is a wake-up call for the community to revisit that," he said.

DHEC officials say there was no sign of a sewage leak into the river until late July 29.

Six days earlier, on July 23, Alpine Utilities told DHEC of a mechanical problem awaiting repairs that prevented final treatment of sewage.

Personnel at the privately owned utility planned to haul out the sludge and consulted with DHEC a day or two later on how to do that, Berry said.

"The explanation given us was perfectly plausible," he said. "We had no suspicion then of a problem."

But DHEC officials didn't verify whether the plant was operating normally until near sunset July 29 after reports of odors in a creek into which the plant emits treated sewage, he said. The creek flows into the river.

Tests of river water were taken that night. DHEC put up warning signs about contamination on the river the next morning because of certainty of high levels of bacteria before tests later confirmed it, Berry said. The agency notified the media later July 30 of the contamination.

The first reports of anyone saying they got sick after being in the river emerged Wednesday.

Tim Crenshaw believes his intestinal infection July 28 came from swallowing contaminated water while kayaking on the river the day before.

"This river is a playground for our city, so this (spill) shouldn't happen," said Crenshaw, 51, who works at USC. "They let things slide, taking those people (at the sewer plant) at their word."

Benoit St. Jacques, 50, said he has had nausea and ear, eye and throat infections since swimming in the river July 29. Jacques, who works at Rosewood Market, called his doctor, who advised him to rest.

Crenshaw said he did not go to a doctor or report his illness to DHEC. Officials there said they still have no reports of anyone getting sick after being in the river.

Bacteria in partially treated sewage can cause nausea, and ear, eye, nose and throat infections are possible from the spill.

Some people who run kayak and canoe services down the river wonder if the pollution was occurring earlier than has been reported.

Michael Mayo, who runs Palmetto Outdoors, noticed a foul smell in the river during a July 24 tubing trip that he videotaped.

"It smelled bad the whole time I was filming," he said. "When you spend a lot of time on the river, you're used to some funny smells now and then. But usually they don't last this long."

Mayo is switching tubing trips to the stretch of the river above I-20, which is unaffected by the spill. But the new route is a five-hour float, longer than many people want, he said.

The spill, combined with earlier findings of bacteria in the Congaree River downstream, is putting a serious dent in tube rentals at a time usually best for his business, he said.

DHEC has said it got several reports about an unusual film on the Saluda as early as late June. But officials said tests of water then did not indicate any wastewater problems. Berry said there is no evidence to suggest the film was connected to the Alpine Utilities equipment failure and spill.

"We haven't been able to link it to any known source," Berry said.

Staff writer Joy Holleman contributed to this story. Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.


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