River protection advocates are demanding that SCE&G clean up a slick of contaminated coal tar from the Congaree River or face a legal fight over the utility’s plan to leave the toxic goo in the riverbed.
The Congaree Riverkeeper organization sent legal notices Tuesday to SCE&G and two federal agencies giving them three months to begin removing coal tar from the Congaree.
If SCE&G doesn’t dig up the coal tar coating the river bottom, or make progress toward doing so, the riverkeeper group will sue the utility, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under federal clean water and hazardous waste laws, according to letters written by an environmental legal group representing the riverkeeper.
The letters to SCE&G, the Corps and the EPA are required before anyone can file a so-called “citizen’s lawsuit” seeking to enforce federal clean water or hazardous waste laws.
In a letter to SCE&G’s parent corporation, SCANA, attorneys for the Congaree Riverkeeper said the Cayce-based utility’s failure to get rid of the coal tar violates federal hazardous waste laws. Letting the tar remain in the river “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment,” the letter to SCANA Chief Executive Kevin Marsh said.
Tuesday’s notices are the first formal legal actions by environmentalists against SCE&G over its plan to leave coal tar in the Congaree and put a cap over the material. River protection advocates and businesses are watching the issue because of the river’s popularity.
The Congaree is the most visible river in Columbia and a centerpiece of the city’s efforts to extend development of the popular Vista entertainment district. Pollution in the river could give the city a bad image and hurts Columbia’s emerging outfitter businesses.
Coal tar is riddled with toxic pollutants, including benzene, that can be dangerous to people and wildlife. Benzene can cause cancer under certain conditions. Also, kayakers who have stepped in the tar have complained of a burning sensation on their skin.
The Congaree River coal tar is a byproduct of a manufactured gas plant that once operated on Huger Street above the river. The plant relied on coal-generated gas to provide energy to people’s homes in the early 20th century. But the process of creating the gas left a sticky, toxin-tinged residue that ran onto the ground and into the Congaree. The material apparently has been coating the river bottom for generations.
In 2010, a kayaker notified DHEC after stepping in the gummy substance at the Senate Street boat landing, a popular launch spot for boaters. The area of coal-tar pollution coats the river bottom from near the Gervais Street bridge to the Blossom Street bridge, adjacent to the city’s popular Vista entertainment district.
SCE&G wants to cap the coal tar with stones and cloth, rather than dig it up and haul it away. Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved a permit allowing SCE&G to leave coal tar in the river and cover the gunk with a layer of stones and fabric. The power company says the plan will hold the tar in place and protect the river.
SCE&G first planned to temporarily dam up the river to dry it out, then excavate the coal tar. But the company later said that was too difficult. The decision not to dig up the coal tar could save SCE&G $11 million, records show.
Attempts to reach the Corps and the EPA for comment were unsuccessful.
Thomas Effinger, SCE&G’s director of environmental services, told The State his company worked “six long years, exhausting every method possible to do that source removal.” But building a temporary dam was too hard because the Congaree River bottom is composed mostly of bed rock, making it difficult to drive the sheet piling needed for such a dam, Effinger said.
The company also says it would be difficult to obtain federal and state permits for such a dam. In addition, questions surfaced about potentially dangerous Civil War-era explosives in the Congaree that could impede a cleanup effort.
“It became very apparent that we were not going to be able to satisfy their concerns,” Effinger said of questions by federal agencies.
Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler disputed that. Citing a report from a consulting engineer who his group commissioned, Stangler said the coal tar can – and should be – removed.
The report, written by consulting engineer Randall Grachek, says it would be harder to dam up the river to remove the material, but “this shouldn’t be a reason to resort to another alternative that leaves contaminated materials in place.”
“In my opinion,” Grachek’s report said, “the cost, technical, and regulatory challenges of the removal remedy do not outweigh the benefit of removal and disposal of the contamination from the river and the removal option should be the first option considered.”
At a public meeting in February, a chorus of people urged SCE&G to try to remove the coal tar. More recently, Gov. Henry McMaster also has contacted Stangler’s group about the plan to leave coal tar in the river, Stangler said.
“We have discussed this issue with a number of elected officials, including Gov. McMaster, who in a recent conversation expressed serious concerns about the capping proposal and the impacts to the river, public health and economic development,” Stangler said.
McMaster did not address the plan to cap the coal tar when asked about it during a news conference Tuesday. But he said people are concerned about the tar and it is important to keep the river clean.
“We need to be very careful to see that we’re doing the right thing,” McMaster said.
The Riverkeeper group is being represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, a regional nonprofit legal service that helps conservation groups file lawsuits.
Tuesday’s legal action says the Corps of Engineers improperly issued a permit to SCE&G, while the federal government failed to protect the public from hazardous waste pollution.
The type of permit the Corps approved is supposed to be for projects with minor environmental impacts, but the coal tar removal is a major effort and needs more careful review, according to the Riverkeeper’s letter to the Corps. Putting stones in the river to cover up the tar, for instance, could cause people wading or boating in the river to risk getting their feet caught between the stones, environmentalists said.
The Congaree River itself does not show evidence of contamination from the coal tar. But, critics say, state regulators have not done enough testing to make any conclusions.