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DHEC's answers about Palmetto Utilities request

Posted: May 2, 2014 2:18 p.m.
Updated: May 5, 2014 5:00 a.m.

When Stan Jones, president of Palmetto Utilities, recently sought Kershaw County Council’s support for a permit to discharge treated wastewater into Spears Creek, council members left with a number of unanswered questions. That was because the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) did not send a representative to a council workshop to answer some of those questions.

Palmetto Utilities, based in Richland County, has a wastewater treatment plant in Kershaw County near Elgin. It is seeking to replace an unused DHEC permit it already holds to discharge 6 million gallons of wastewater into the Wateree River with one that would allow it to discharge into Spears Creek.

During the workshop, Jones said the majority of his customers are in Richland County. Kershaw County Administrator Vic Carpenter said he would send a list of questions to DHEC and provide the responses to council. The Chronicle-Independent also sent questions to DHEC Public Relations Director Jim Beasley, who replied via email with answers from David Baize, assistant chief of DHEC’s Bureau of Water. Some of the questions, the C-I sent were originally posed by Councilman C.R. Miles Jr., who represents the area where the sewage plant is located.

Baize said DHEC only attends local government meetings when invited by a public body such as county council. Jones said he invited DHEC to the meeting but was told it had “a conflict” and could not send someone to attend. Jones said he passed that information on to Carpenter before the meeting. Carpenter confirmed neither he nor any other county official invited DHEC to the meeting, stating that since Palmetto Utilities was making the workshop presentation, it was the utilities’ responsibility to invite DHEC.

One of the questions asked of DHEC was if adding 6 million gallons of water a day to Spears Creek would create a flooding hazard.

“We have provided a preliminary evaluation to the permit applicant that a discharge would appear to be suitable. However, we have not finalized our review,” Baize said. “This particular topic has not been evaluated, but can be evaluated during a permit review process -- a process that would include an opportunity for public input.”

Jones told council the Wateree River permit would be rescinded if the utility received the permit for Spears Creek. That brought up the question of how the Wateree River discharge capacity could be divided by other facilities that discharge into the river.

“The Wateree River permit will be modified to also address the Spears Creek discharge. When the operation at the Spears Creek discharge began, the opportunity to discharge to the Wateree directly would cease. The discharge into Spears Creek still has an effect on the Wateree,” Baize said, however. “Discharges that would affect oxygen into the Wateree are currently governed by a multi-party agreement (including Kershaw County and Palmetto Utilities) and has been adopted as a part of the 208 plans managed by both the Central Midlands COG and the Santee-Lynches Regional COG. We would not expect that any loading allocations would change.”

Translation: the water of Spears Creek flows to the Wateree River in Richland County, so the capacity to discharge into the river would not change.

Elgin Mayor Brad Hanley asked during the workshop what would happen in the future if Elgin decided to build and operate a wastewater treatment plant that added treated wastewater to Spears Creek. Would they be granted discharge capacity, Hanley asked.

“If the Santee-Lynches Regional COG amended their 208 plan to allow such a discharge, then DHEC would be in a position to write a permit for such a discharge. In that situation, the new discharger and the Palmetto Utilities discharge would share the available assimilative capacity in Spears Creek,” Baize said.

He also answered a question about whether or not there would be a negative impact to fish and wildlife in and around Spears Creek should DHEC issue Palmetto Utilities the new permit.

 “If we issued a permit, we would have concluded that water quality in the creek would be protected – i.e., the water quality standards would be met. We would write the permit to set the appropriate limits to protect the creek,” Baize said.

Palmetto Utilities currently uses “infiltration basins” to collect treated water from their facility. Miles asked, if the current and past discharges from basin seepages are permissible under the no-discharge permit issued by DHEC? If not, Miles wanted to know, has Palmetto Utilities received a Notice of Violation for any surface water discharges made without an NPDES permit?

“The seepages are not technically allowed by the no-discharge permit, but have been determined to be due to the geology of the area rather than due to an operational activity at the facility,” Baize replied. “The seep along Crab Apple Lane was sampled on October 21, 2010, and all parameters analyzed including fecal coliform bacteria, nitrate, ammonia and phosphate were within acceptable limits.”

Another set of questions dealt with whether or not the basin seepages pose a health threat to either the public or environment, and if, and how, DHEC monitors and analyzes the groundwater.

“The permit requires routine quarterly monitoring of the groundwater to determine if the infiltration basins are impacting the groundwater,” Baize said. “The groundwater at the infiltration basins is monitored on a routine basis. The groundwater data are generally within acceptable ranges. Groundwater data for some wells at the site have nitrate levels close to the groundwater standard with the samples from these wells either being slightly below or slightly above the standard.”

Miles stated that the proposed discharge into Spears Creek would result in an increase in flow and potential increase in bacteria load to the creek -- a creek he said is already impaired by bacteria. He said Palmetto Utilities’ bacteria effluent limits allow for “single exceedances” about water quality standards. Miles, therefore, asked whether DHEC would revise the total maximum daily load (TDML) based on changes to the watershed.

Baize said DHEC has no plans to do modify the creek’s standards.

“DHEC does not plan to revise the bacteria TMDL for Spears Creek. The target for all bacteria TMDLs is an instream concentration equal to the bacteria water quality standard. NPDES permit effluent limits are set at the same concentration as the water quality standard. Therefore, new or expanded discharges are consistent with pre-existing bacteria TMDLs because additional effluent flow at or below the water quality standard concentration cannot cause instream concentrations to rise above the standard,” Baize said.

Finally, Miles’ asked about limiting E. coli levels in both Spears Creek and the Wateree River. He said the draft permit is written to replace the Wateree River outfall with one at Spears Creek, but that the draft contains final, rather than interim, limitations for the river, as well as final limitations for the creek. Miles asked if DHEC plans to revise Palmetto Utilities’ permit to change the Wateree River E. coli limitation from final to interim.

“I’m wondering how much of this, over the long term, will eventually get into ground water in the area and affect people who have wells,” Miles explained to the C-I on Friday. “It may take years or it may never happen, but just because they test it now doesn’t mean it won’t change over time. That’s what I would like to know.”

Baize said since Palmetto Utilities is not currently discharging into the river, the bacteria levels are well within allowable limits.

“We would plan to have the descriptions for Outfalls 001 (Wateree River) and 002 (Spears Creek) match for all effluent limits pages. Since there is no present discharge to Outfall 001 the term ‘interim’ in this context means ‘currently approved’ and ‘final’ means ‘future.’ In all cases, the draft limits shown meet the SC Water Quality Standards R.61-68,” Baize said.

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