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Details emerge about sewer spill

From left, Disa Cardenas and Maggie Seel, 22, hang out with Dana Poston, 21, Heather Latham, 21, and Michele Page, 21, on rocks near the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia. The girls spent the day on the river despite warnings of water contamination.
From left, Disa Cardenas and Maggie Seel, 22, hang out with Dana Poston, 21, Heather Latham, 21, and Michele Page, 21, on rocks near the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia. The girls spent the day on the river despite warnings of water contamination.

COLUMBIA-- After a sewer plant experienced a serious malfunction that led to discharge into the Saluda River, state regulators did not return to the plant until they got a complaint about odor, six days later.

Nearly two weeks ago, a crucial component of the sewage treatment plant owned by Alpine Utilities failed and, later, partially treated wastewater was released into a creek leading to the Saluda River.

While the utility's owner says the problem is fixed now, bacteria levels are still unacceptably high in the river and people are banned from swimming there.

A week after the ban went into effect, some new details emerged Monday about the company's actions and DHEC's response.

Harry Mathis, DHEC's regional director for environmental quality control, said someone with DHEC stopped by the plant July 23 on a routine inspection and was informed of the equipment failure.

The company told agency officials "that they would be trucking wastewater to some other facility for treatment," agency spokesman Adam Myrick said.

Plant operator Bill Watkins of EA Services said sludge was hauled away.

But during repairs, probably on Tuesday or Wednesday, partially treated wastewater was released into Stoop Creek, he said.

"We weren't really discharging the solids," he said, "but we were discharging water that was partially treated."

Watkins said he assumes someone notified DHEC about the release of the improperly treated wastewater. "I think we did call," he said, "but I don't know the timing."

Myrick, with DHEC, said the agency received an odor complaint on Tuesday and went to the plant. The problem was "very obvious," he said.

"It was at that point when we began pulling samples and trying to figure out the magnitude of what was happening."

Myrick said he couldn't comment on whether agency employees followed standard operating procedures or whether regulators should have checked on progress sooner.

But Mathis said: "We do verify, and that was part of the process we were going through" when checking on the odor complaint.

Watkins said the plant's equipment was repaired, and it was working Thursday morning.

Added plant owner Robin Dial: "We hope the situation is behind us in terms of the plant needing repair. Our readings and quality level are where they should be."

The plant, at I-20 and Broad River Road, serves about 5,500 homes, stores and offices in the St. Andrews area.

In the coming week, Mathis said, DHEC will be looking closely at how the company handled the situation.

Records show only one violation in the past, agency spokesman Thom Berry said. That consent order, in 2000, resulted in a $6,000 penalty for exceeding discharge limits on ammonia-nitrogen.

In another development Monday, officials at Riverbanks Zoo said they have stopped pulling water from the river for sprinklers on the property because children tend to play in them.

The rapids on the Saluda River remain off-limits to swimmers because of contamination, health officials said.

No illnesses or injuries have been reported.

"The general message is, it is getting better," Mathis said.

But afternoon thunderstorms flush unrelated contaminants into the river, skewing test results.

Mathis said he expects the ban on swimming in the Saluda to continue until there have been two consecutive days without rain.

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