A plan for cleaning up coal tar from a popular river in Columbia has muddied up transparency concerns with the public.
Complaints about the state’s plan to clean up a decades-old coal tar leak into the Congaree came in waves during a public meeting on Monday night. South Carolina Energy & Gas presented a new plan during that meeting to put a cement cap over the tar instead of removing all of it from the river bottom. The company had to change its original plan to build a cofferdam around the pollution site for cleanup after the Army Corp of Engineers decided it could cause dangerous flooding.
The Congaree is popular among Midlands residents, who will often use it for boating, fishing or tubing.
Regardless of the plan to deal with the coal, Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said his biggest issue with the cleanup effort so far has been what he considers a lack of transparency coming from SCE&G and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC).
“If they are going to tell everybody that removal isn’t going to work,” said Stangler. “Then I think they need to go down a list and tell us every single thing that they tried, every idea they came up with, and why it wouldn’t work.”
DHEC suspects the tar is a byproduct of leaks from two former gasification plants that SCE&G’s predecessor operated during the first half of the 20th century. However, its presence in the Congaree River near the historic Gervais Street Bridge was not discovered until 2010.
Stangler pointed out that this was the first public meeting SCE&G had organized since the company first presented its original plan in 2013. “What we’ve actually seen them do is they applied for one permit for cofferdams and they put some sandbags down one time during some flood conditions and that is the extent of the efforts we’ve been shown,” Stangler said.
SCE&G spokeswoman Ginny Jones said large-scale projects like this take time to get approval and that the company understands that information does not come out as quickly as some might like. “As we’ve gone through this process, you know, we haven’t wanted to communicate things that are preliminary. But we do understand the public’s interest in knowing,” said Jones. “And absolutely we are open to future public meetings.”
She said engineers working for SCE&G took several notes during Monday’s public meeting to try and come up with a plan to remove the coal tar, but the company still believes the only viable solution is capping the material with cement.
Environmentalist are concerned that leaving the coal tar in the river leaves dangerous chemicals and carcinogens in the water.
“They own this pollution,” said Stangler, who said he prefers SCE&G find a way to remove the tar. “They don’t get to walk away from this.”