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County council meets on Palmetto Utilities request
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By the end of a special called meeting Oct. 1 to discuss a permitting request from Palmetto Utilities of Richland County, Kershaw County Council decided it wants to meet with all concerned parties about a potential increase in discharges into Spears Creek in Kershaw County.

Palmetto Utilities, which operates a treatment plant in Elgin near the Kershaw/Richland county line, wants to increase its treatment capacity and be allowed to discharge up to 6 million gallons per day (mgd) into Spears Creek. It submitted an application to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) in 2014, but voluntarily withdrew the request after council’s opposition.

Council passed a resolution in March authorizing Chairman Julian Burns and County Administrator Vice Carpenter to do “all acts necessary to preserve the health, well being and environmental assets of Kershaw County,” including opposing the increased discharge into Spears Creek.

The new twist council discussed Oct. 1 is Palmetto’s apparent desire to discharge treated wastewater into Spears Creek across the county line in Richland County -- water councilmen said would obviously flow into Kershaw County.

“The purpose of this was to give feedback to all members of the council on a very technical and complex situation, where men and women of good faith could disagree,” Burns said of the special meeting. “We’re trying to keep it on an equitable basis and we thank the other parties to this to also show a little courtesy and get the facts on the table. This is a very difficult subject.”

Burns said he would like to see a “regional approach” to the matter, since it involves two counties, Palmetto Utilities and DHEC.

“We can put this on an equitable basis so we can discuss it on a level playing field with all the parties at the table,” Burns said. “We should do that on the basis of facts, the best facts we can understand and take this on with some immediacy.” 

Councilman Sammie Tucker Jr. said he wanted to hear Palmetto Utilities’ position. Two representatives from the company attended the Oct. 1 meeting.

“There’s two sides to every story and I have some questions for them and will probably have more for our administrator and attorney when those questions get answered,” Tucker said. “I have moved in good faith as a council member of this county and I think we can accomplish a lot more by being honest with one another moving forward, working in a collaborative effort than we are fighting amongst one another, But we first have to be truthful with one another.”

As the Columbia area grows, including a proposed housing development with as many as 500 new homes near Blythewood, Palmetto Utilities wants to increase its treatment capacity at its Elgin facility.

However, Carpenter said the county has concerns with the treatment plant’s environmental safety after a power failure at the facility Sept. 23 resulted in 870,000 gallons of untreated waste being released, some of which found its way into Spears Creek, which he said is in violation of the utility’s DHEC permit.

“These spills, due to power failures, are examples of just an ongoing poor operation and maintenance which resulted in more than one and one half-million gallons of wastewater being spilled by the company since January 2014,” Carpenter said. 

Burns said he sent a letter to the Richland County Council asking for its input into the proposal for Palmetto Utilities to pipe its treated wastewater some 3,500 feet across the county line and discharge it into Spears Creek in Richland County, only to have it flow right back into Kershaw County.

“It’s a simple effort here to get people talking to each other,” Burns said.

Daniel Rickman with Palmetto Utilities said he and CEO Bryan Stone were at the meeting to try to answer council’s questions and concerns.

“There are a lot of issues that have floated around here tonight. We’ve talked about the spill. We’ve talked about our relationship. We need to separate all these out and let’s pick and answer all the questions that you have,” Rickman said. “Everything you have asked for, we’ve supplied to you. The meeting with the conservation commission has been an ongoing thing for a long time. It didn’t just pop up like it seems to be addressed here. I want to make sure you hear all sides.”

Tucker said he had a previous meeting with Palmetto Utilities and the option of sending the wastewater to Richland County was never mentioned. Stone said the utility is not trying to hide anything.

“We’ve continued to look at all the options that are on the table to try to figure out what the best, most efficient plan is with everything,” Stone said. “We haven’t hidden anything from anybody.”

Councilman Tom Gardner said Palmetto Utilities is a business, and as such has different priorities than the county. The utility has a permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Wateree River, does not since the treatment plant is several miles from the river and building a pipeline to carry the wastewater would be a time consuming and costly project.

“Our goals are different. Your goal is profitability. Ours is not. Ours is environmental and where our citizens stand, so somewhere those two have to come closer together. You’re concerned with the bottom line,” Gardner said. “Ultimately, the easiest thing to do would be to build that pipeline and spend $20 million and you would already do that. Profitability is high on your end. It’s not high on our end. Ours is environmental and taking care of our citizens in our county. Somewhere that gap has got to close so it works for everybody.”

Stone countered, saying the utility is less interested in profits than in “sustainability.”

“Our number one priority is sustainability. Sustainability has a variety of elements to it,” Stone said. “It’s important that we do continue to make money, because that’s part of being sustainable. What’s more important are some of the softer elements of business.”

Stone said environmental sustainability is a high priority for Pacolet Milliken, Palmetto Utilities’ parent company. Burns summarized the meeting saying the Kershaw County Council, Richland County Council and Palmetto Utilities should meet as one group and talk out the details of how the utility can best serve the public.

Palmetto Utilities will be on the agenda for council’s next regular meeting Oct. 13.