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Murky waters: Public, DHEC, SCE&G grapple with Congaree pollution

A meeting turned uncomfortably tense last night as the general public accepted an invitation from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to hear updates about the plans for dealing with a tar-like material found in the Congaree River.  Legislators, South Carolina Electric and Gas Company (SCE&G) representatives, and citizens from multiple counties gathered in the EdVenture conference room for what quickly became a heated town hall forum for expressing frustrations and doubts about the proposed plans presented.

According to DHEC, the government agency first became aware of the tar-like material in June 2010 via a citizen’s complaint.  “[The citizen] waded out into the water and got some goo on their skin,” said Ken Taylor, the Director of the SC DHEC Division of Site Assessment, Remediation, and Revitalization.  

DHEC first responded by implementing “No Swimming” signs in the water, of which they then took samples to find the source of the tar-like material.  Eventually, they were able to determine that the material was left over from a former manufactured gas plant that was owned and operated by SCE&G’s predecessor companies through the early twentieth century.  The plant’s operations caused coal tar waste to be released into a stream and eventually deposited into the Congaree River, near the Gervais Street Bridge.  According to Taylor, the plant closed in the 1950s, therefore the tar that is still present “has been around at least 60 years, maybe 100 years.”

The tar-like material does not dissolve in water and stays bound in sediments.  “The tar itself is very stable, until you congaree river tar meetingdisturb it, then it’s smelly, sticky, and nasty,” said Taylor.  The tar becomes disturbed if there is human contact, for example, stepping in it.

Taylor assured the crowd last night that the only “continued exposure posed a dangerous risk to humans.”  However, sediment and soil samples gleaned between 2010 and 2012 revealed that the tar-like material contained polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Bill Stangler, the Congaree riverkeeper, attended the meeting and expressed his concerns.  “I feel like we’ve downplayed a little bit of the public health risk.  You say, ‘Well, if you really get in a lot, you can have a problem.’ I’ve been in it, and I’m sure there are a lot of other people in this room that have been in it,” he said at last night’s meeting.  “It burns your skin when you touch that tar and it’s stuck to you.  That’s a pretty real health concern.”

Last night was not the first Stangler had heard about the tar-like material.  “I’ve had people complain about it, especially on hot days with low water, burning their eyes, burning their throats when they breathe, things like that,” he said.  “P.A.H.’s, benzo(a)pyrene, these are things that we know cause cancer.  So to say, ‘Well, if you’re not rolling around in it every day, you’re fine’…I don’t want to downplay that risk at all.”

SCE&G is financially responsible for the tar, but DHEC will oversee the plans for settling the issue.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) must review the proposed strategies in order for SCE&G to receive a permit under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act or Section 10 of the River and Harbors Act.  Representatives from DHEC said they invited engineers and officials from the USACE to join the meeting last night, but none attended.  

The absence of the Army Corps troubled many citizens in attendance, particularly after Taylor acknowledged, “I can’t speak for the Army Corps, but I think it’s pretty clear they’re not going to approve the permit for” removal, which was one of the preferred methods of dealing with the tar.

There were four propositions initially explored in 2013: taking no action; monitoring and institutional controls; sediment capping and institutional controls; and removal and off-site disposal. Both DHEC and the public initially preferred the removal of the tar, which would require the building of a large cofferdam.  According to Taylor, the dam was an option that posed “monumental danger” because of the potential of undetonated cannonballs that may still be present in the river from the Civil War days of General William Sherman’s burning of Columbia.  

congaree tar meeting 2Additionally, building a cofferdam could cause “potential flooding issues on Cayce side that would never have existed if there wasn’t a dam built,” according to Taylor.  Because of this, DHEC felt that the third option—sediment capping –was the “most viable alternative.”  

Sediment capping will not require any part of the river to be dewatered; the sediment caps would likely be placed on the rocky bottom of the Congaree.  DHEC acknowledged that issues such as flooding could disturb the caps.

“Capping will keep human exposure down and prevent anyone from getting in contact with the tar,” said Taylor.  “But it will require long-term monitoring, because the stuff will still be there.”

Citizens who attended the meeting expressed a mix of negative reactions to DHEC’s presentation, including frustration, sadness, disappointment, distrust, and anger.  Many in attendance were dismayed to know that there was not a formal environmental impact statement about the tar, and that no one involved in the previous research efforts was present to comment on the data collected.  

No information was available at the meeting about how the tar or the proposed sediment capping would impact the river’s ecosystem and food web.   “I don’t know if we do fully know the impact this is having on the river and the river ecosystem,” said Stangler.  “We’ve seen this across the country.  This could have huge effects on the macroinvertebrate community.”

According to DHEC representatives, the state governor’s office is aware of the problem, but no larger entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are involved.  “I don’t see it getting more serious, because [the tar-like material] has been sitting there for fifty years,” said Taylor.

Neither DHEC or SCANA/SCE&G officials could remark on how thick the caps would be, or if they would make the waters more shallow and interfere with kayaking and similar river activities.  “I don’t know,” said Taylor.  “We do not have any design on what the caps would be like.”

More than a dozen citizens took turns speaking during the meeting about their doubts and frustrations with the proposed solution for the tar-like substance.  Many felt none of the involved organizations were thinking for easy, short-term solutions.  “Franky, I was shocked to see this is how we are dealing with pollution,” said one man in attendance.  “My concern is that we are proverbially shoving this under the rug until a later date.”

“This problem is a legacy that was left for us.  What do we want to leave for our future?” asked another man during the forum portion of the night.  “We have to look at this and think about the value and quality of life and the environment leaving for our children and grandchildren.  Are we making it more difficult for them?”

What infuriated more in attendance than any other topic, though, was the lack of answers provided by representatives from DHEC and SCANA at the meeting.  With officials unable to explain the depths and effects of sediment capping on the river’s ecosystem and human recreational activity, several citizens expressed dissatisfaction at what one attendee called a lack of “due diligence” in research and planning efforts.  Another citizen remarked that the agencies were asking them to “take a lot on faith, and not giving us any evidence” to feel assured about the proposed solutions.

“I think I can speak for everyone here when I say that there is no sense of confidence among anyone in this room that there is a plan that’s been presented here tonight that would actually work,” expressed one attendee.

Another guest spoke toward the end of the meeting to express her disappointment in the presentation’s outcome.  “We have been given very few straight answers tonight by DHEC, and I am shocked that SCANA is just telling people they can talk to them after the meeting [in lieu of answering questions],” she said.  “This just doesn’t feel right.”

SCANA/SCE&G officials said later that they declined to comment or answer questions during the presentation and subsequent forum because “this is DHEC’s meeting.”  However, another official did speak briefly to assure the public, “This isn’t about money for us.  I would be happy to meet with anyone at a later date.”  SCANA/SCE&G representatives stayed after the forum closed to answer questions one-on-one from guests.

Multiple officials from DHEC assured the audience that there would be a series of meetings, and that the public would be kept informed about the project’s status on their website.

According to one DHEC employee, the meeting at least served to educate and inform the public about the potentialcongaree river meeting 3 dangers of exposure to the tar.  “It does get stirred up if you step on it, and it does have health effects if you come in direct contact with it,” she stated.  “It can cause skin irritation and burning.  It can cause eye irritation and burning, so it is important to get the word out…we do need to make sure to tell people to avoid contact with it.  If they do come in contact with it, it’s important to wash it off as expediently as possible.”

Although most of the public who attended argued in favor of removal and disposal of the tar-like material, DHEC and SCANA/SCE&G remained firm that option posed both danger and feasibility issues, and echoed that they doubted the USACE would grant them the permit to do that.  Currently, SCE&G is designing the process for sediment capping, which DHEC said was the “most protective option for human health and the environment.”  SCE&G is still in the permitting process for this solution.

One citizen who attended lamented her disappointment with what either organization had to offer during the meeting.  “I came here with an open mind tonight, wanting to be convinced that we were doing something good about this problem,” she said.  “But now I am convinced that leaving this tar in our water is not safe for the public, and I just don’t feel satisfied with any of the options presented here tonight.  I think it’s time we go back to the drawing board.”

“We want clean water, we want clean rivers, and we want something we can enjoy,” said another man during the forum.  “We don’t want to dump this on another generation.  We want this stuff removed.”

Representatives from SCE&G/SCANA encouraged the public to contact them to hear about their research and efforts.  DHEC officials assured the audience there would be multiple meetings in the future regarding this issue, and that the public would continue to be invited and have a voice.  

“It’s a complex problem that is not going anywhere,” Taylor admitted.  “That stuff has been in the water for at least 50 years.”

For more information about the proposed solutions to dealing with the tar-like material in the Congaree River, visit www.scdhec.gov/CongareeRiver.

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