South Carolina and federal regulators are taking another look at SCE&G’s decision to leave coal tar at the bottom of a river in downtown Columbia, even implying the private utility may have misled them.
The Army Corps of Engineers said in a letter last month it never concluded that it would be impractical to build a temporary dam along the Congaree River to remove tar from a long-closed factory, despite what SCE&G told state officials last year.
“SCE&G’s characterization of the Corps’ position… is inaccurate,” the letter from Regulatory Division Chief Travis Hughes states. “The Corps never reached such a conclusion.”
The State newspaper first reported on the letters on Thursday, which it obtained from the Congaree Riverkeeper organization. Congaree Riverkeeper is suing SCE&G over its plan to cap the contaminated area, while the conservation group believes it should be removed entirely.
At issue is pollution from a former coal gasification plant in downtown Columbia. The plant operated by SCE&G’s predecessor in the first half of the 20th century discharged byproducts into a creek which eventually flowed into the Congaree. The pollution was discovered in 2010.
The tar contains several known carcinogens, such as benzene, although the state Department of Environmental Control (DHEC) says it has not determined if the chemicals are impacting the river.
SCE&G initially 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. At the time, it also maintained to DHEC regulators that the cofferdam “would present more risk than is allowed” by the Corps of Engineers. 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 the Corps’ letters suggest it was unhappy with how SCE&G portrayed its position to DHEC. Instead, Hughes wrote the Corps never reached such a conclusion because the utility stopped responding to its requests.
“Due to the abandonment of the removal option, the Corps never rendered a final decision on the application, including with regard to risk associated with a cofferdam,” the letter states.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler released the letters this week, saying it suggests both regulators were trusting SCE&G as a “middleman” between them.
“The Army Corps doesn’t mince a lot of words,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “They said they felt what SCE&G said was misleading.”
Meanwhile, a DHEC letter also made public this week shows the agency is reopening the project. “Due to this new information, SCDHEC would like SCE&G to consider renewed efforts to pursue a modified removal action approach,” Director of Site Assessment G. Kendall Taylor wrote. Taylor also requested a follow-up meeting.
A spokeswoman for SCE&G’s parent company SCANA said the utility would still prefer to remove the tar, if practical. “We will certainly do what DHEC directs us to do, including reconsidering a modified approach for remediation,” she said in an email. “However, starting the permitting process all over again would significantly delay any work that could be done to address the material in the river.”