A conservation group says it will sue over plans to cover — but not remove — coal tar from a riverbed in downtown Columbia.
The Army Corps of Engineers last month signed off on South Carolina Electric & Gas’s plan to cover the toxic material which sits on the Congaree River bottom. The material dates back to a former coal gasification plant which operated through the first half of the 20th century by SCE&G’s predecessor along a creek upstream.
Congaree Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center sent notices of intent to sue SCE&G and its intent to appeal the Corps of Engineers decision.
“What’s being proposed will leave coal tar in the Congaree River permanently,” Riverkeeper Bill Stangler said. “Coal tar is toxic. There are a number of pollutants in this coal tar that are dangerous and are known to be carcinogens.”
State environmental officials discovered the coal tar in 2010 after complaints from swimmers about irritated skin. At the time, SCE&G pledged to help remove the tar. But the utility eventually backed away, saying the cost of creating a cofferdam and excavation would be too expensive. Instead it proposed to cover the contamination with fabric and rocks to keep it in place.
Both the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Corps of Engineers approved the plan, with DHEC pushing sediment capping as an alternative to removal. But Stangler insists the fabric proposed as cover would not be sufficient for the job.
State environmental regulators say there’s no evidence so far that the tar buried for much of the past century has actually hurt Congaree River water quality. But Stangler said he does not think enough research has been done, noting only two water samples testing for coal tar have been taken since the 2010 discovery.
The Congaree River has become an increasingly popular place for canoes, kayakers and tube rafters over the past decade. Boaters enjoy the Congaree’s mild rapids and shallow fishing opportunities.