The state has mandated all wastewater treatment plants and municipal solid waste landfills test for a toxic pollutant after rolling out emergency regulations last week.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has required facilities to test their waste for traces of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, statewide. The chemical was commonly used as an industrial coolant at electric plants but was banned by Congress in 1979.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities Department and the city of Rock Hill, two entities permitted by the state to apply sludge to acres throughout York, Lancaster and Chester counties, said they were in compliance with the order and are in the process of testing their sludge to meet new guidelines.
DHEC detected PCBs in Upstate water systems as early as July, according to the regulation order. The agency expanded its investigation into the “illicit discharges” after PCBs also were detected in Richland County last month.
A federal investigation into the source of the illegal dumping is ongoing by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to DHEC.
The chemical was banned due to health concerns and its ability to remain in the environment for long periods of time. As a precaution, the emergency regulations temporarily stop sludge that contains any amount of PCBs from being applied to the land by waste facilities or businesses that operate grease traps and septic systems.
Currently, the state allows for sludge that contains fewer than 50 parts per million of PCBs to be applied to agricultural fields, which doubles as fertilizer for farmers.
Jimmy Bagley, Rock Hill deputy city manager, said the emergency regulations raise a valid and serious public health concern but that occurrences of PCBs in treatment plants are rare.
“It’s not like it can never happen,” said Bagley, but “the threat is so slim.”
The city of Rock Hill, which contracts sludge treatment from its Manchester Creek wastewater facility with a company called Synagro, has sent samples to Rogers & Callcott, a Greenville-based lab.
Bagley said the city has moved increasingly away from sludge applications in favor of an incineration alternative in North Carolina, but he said land applications still remain the cheapest option for disposal.
Since July, Bagley said, the city has applied close to 900 wet tons of sludge to various sites throughout the state, including York, Chester, Lancaster and Fairfield counties. Meanwhile, more than 1,700 tons were sent to landfills and 850 tons were sent to an incinerator service.
The emergency regulations require a specific PCB test to be completed by a DHEC-certified lab. Facilities are expected to report back to DHEC before mid-October.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities has redirected its sludge applications in the state to existing fields in North Carolina until it receives test results and gets more guidance from DHEC, according to spokeswoman Karen Whichard.
“We just moved our operations temporarily, assuming test results come back clean and clear,” Whichard said. The utility is permitted to apply on a combined 6,600 acres in York, Lancaster, Chester and Fairfield counties.
Whichard said the problem concerning the illicit PCBs has been well known in the local waste industry for a few months and that the utility began proactively sending samples for testing to Columbia-based lab Shealy Environmental last month. So far, Whichard said the tests have not detected any PCBs.
Under the regulations, sludge found to be free of PCBs would be allowed to be applied as long as the entity meets all other state and federal guidelines as part of a permit process.
Both Rock Hill and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities have received pushback from local activists on the health and environmental concerns associated with sludge application, which has been reported to increase phosphorous levels in surrounding water bodies.
Jie Jenny Zou • 803-329-4062