Federal environmental officials have approved a plan that would allow a Midlands power company to physically cover up polluted coal tar in a river near downtown Columbia, but not remove it.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a permit last week for South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G) to cover the tar with concrete and other material. The tar dates back to a former gas plant owned by and SCE&G predecessor which operated near the Congaree River during the first half of the 20th century. The impacted area covers slightly more than two acres of river, including a popular area for kayakers and tubers to put in before they float downriver.
The state Department of Health and Environmental Control had initially favored a plan which would have required SCE&G remove the tar from the river entirely. However, the state walked back those requirements amid concerns over cost and the environmental impact of a cofferdam needed to excavate the material.
However, conservation groups say the potentially toxic chemicals should be removed. “We’ve asked a lot of questions about why they abandoned cleaning this stuff up and we haven’t gotten very good answers,” Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said. “And that’s one of the real concerns what our organization has about what’s going on with this process right now.”
Stangler said his organization is considering potential legal challenges.
State environmental regulators say there is no evidence so far that the tar buried in the river sediment for much of the past century has actually hurt Congaree River water quality. However, Stangler counters not enough testing has occurred so far.