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The Confluence: Three Days with the Congaree Riverkeeper

  • 12 min to read
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Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler addresses a group of Newell Brands interns just before a July 11 river cleanup event.

It’s a hell of a thing, being in another man’s gunsights. At least to hear Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler tell it.

The story comes out casually during a conversation with Stangler at The Whig, the venerable subterranean bar at the corner of Gervais and Main streets. As he nurses a SweetWater beer in the ink-dark bar’s tiny vault, Stangler tells me about a time he was out on the Saluda River in West Columbia, just north of the confluence where the Saluda and Broad rivers become the Congaree.

“I heard a guy say, ‘Boy, what are you doing here?’” Stangler says. “I could hear him, he was up in the woods. I said, ‘I’m with Riverkeeper and I’m following up on a pollution call.’ He said, ‘I’ve got you in my sights and I’m locked onto you. Move along.’ I said, ‘All right, buddy.’”

Stangler managed to maneuver himself out of that situation, and it became just one of the stories he can tell about experiences during his nearly seven years as the leader of Congaree Riverkeeper, the nonprofit that advocates on behalf of the Columbia area’s streams and tributaries. The organization is affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network of more than 300 entities that watch over rivers and coastlines across the world.

While Stangler, 31, has dozens of little stories not known to the public, Congaree Riverkeeper in the last several years has been right in the middle of several headline-grabbing efforts.

For instance, there were the battles with private utility Carolina Water Service, which had a history of pollution stemming from sewage discharges into the lower Saluda from a wastewater treatment facility near I-20. Riverkeeper sued Carolina Water in federal court to end those discharges — and won. Earlier this year, the Town of Lexington acquired the I-20 plant and tied its customers into a regional system, ending the discharge into the river.

Riverkeeper also has kept the heat on the City of Columbia through an annual sewer spill report that tracks spills from providers across the Midlands. According to Riverkeeper’s January report, the city, which operates the largest wastewater system in South Carolina, spilled about 663,000 gallons of sewage in 2017 — a lot, to be sure, but still far less than the 2.3 million gallons the city spilled in 2016 or the 5.4 million it spilled in flood-ravaged 2015. The city has been in the midst of a costly, federally mandated upgrade to its sewer system, which accounts for some of its progress, but the vigilance of the Riverkeeper also helps keep the public’s eye trained on the city’s progress.

And, most recently, Riverkeeper has been at the tip of the spear in an attempt to have nine acres of potentially toxic coal tar — 40,000 tons of the stuff — removed from the Congaree River, near the Gervais Street Bridge. SCANA, which is ultimately responsible for the coal tar, which seeped into the river from a fuel production facility decades ago, initially had plans to remove the tar from the river, but then balked and said it would “cap” the pollution instead. Riverkeeper threatened a lawsuit. Earlier this month, officials from SCANA, DHEC and the Army Corps of Engineers indicated that talks about removing the coal tar would be rekindled.

But those are the big headlines. The ones that have made Riverkeeper an increasingly ubiquitous nonprofit brand in Columbia.

What I wondered about was the other stuff. What’s Stangler doing when he’s not duking it out with private utilities in federal court? Or shining a light on the troubles of the state’s largest wastewater system? Or trying to convince a multibillion-dollar utility and the United States government to work together on a plan to pull 40,000 tons of pollution out of a river?

So I convinced Stangler to let me follow him around for several days during a typical workweek at Congaree Riverkeeper. Our journey began in a bar and ended in a Baptist church, with several stops along the river in between.

Keeping an eye on Columbia’s rivers and streams, it turns out, is a multi-faceted job.

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A pair of interns from Newell Brands cleans up trash along the banks of the Broad River near the northern end of Riverfront Park.

Tuesday, July 10 — The Whig

It’s happy hour on a Tuesday, and The Whig is buzzing.

The dimly lit bar is crammed with a mix of regulars in T-shirts and shorts, businesspeople and State House types in button-downs and loosened ties, and various other sun-kissed Columbians who’ve descended underground to escape the heat and have something cold to drink. The crowd size is aided by the fact that it’s Taco Tuesday, and the mingling of conversation, laughter and clinking glasses creates a cacophonous din.

And in the middle of it all are Stangler and Congaree Riverkeeper development coordinator Brittany Kilpatrick (the nonprofit’s only other employee), manning a table with raffle tickets, hats and other Riverkeeper swag, and chatting up anyone who stops by the table.

The night serves as a fundraiser for Riverkeeper. It’s one of several Save Our Water events the nonprofit is having at local bars this summer in conjunction with SweetWater Brewing Company. On this particular Tuesday, a portion of The Whig’s sales will go to Riverkeeper.

Fundraising is essential for Congaree Riverkeeper. For all the court battles and headlines and environmental crusades, it is a tiny organization. Kilpatrick was hired last November; before that Stangler had been, for the most part, a one-man show for years. Riverkeeper’s budget for the current fiscal year is about $100,000.

“This whole Save Our Water campaign, and other events we’re doing, are a good portion of our fundraising, and help pay for things like staff and water quality monitoring and other important stuff,” Stangler says.

Every dollar helps the cause, Stangler tells me, especially considering the vast amount of ground that falls under Riverkeeper’s purview. The organization’s jurisdiction, so to speak, includes more than 90 miles of rivers: 11 miles of the lower Saluda from the Lake Murray Dam down to the confluence; 32 miles of the Broad from the Parr Shoals Dam to the confluence; and all 53 miles of the Congaree, from the confluence to the Wateree.

The bar’s co-owner, Phill Blair, saunters over.

A West Columbia native and Brookland-Cayce High School alum, the gravelly voiced Blair says raising money to help Riverkeeper is a natural fit.

“It’s one of those things where we know our rivers have issues,” Blair says. “Being a West Columbia kid, I grew up on the river, fishing in it. I can tell, over the course of 30 years, that it is different than what it was. … [Riverkeeper] is a good local charity where, if you can raise a couple hundred bucks for them, it goes a long way. It’s not being diffused through some huge company.”

Congaree Riverkeeper, which became a part of the Waterkeeper Alliance in December 2008, is governed by a 12-member board of directors led by Steve de Kozlowski, who spent his career working on water resource issues with the state Department of Natural Resources. The board features a number of well-known locals, including attorney Mullen Taylor, who practices environmental and natural resource law, and state Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor.

The organization’s mission is to “to protect and improve water quality, wildlife habitat, and recreation on the Congaree, Lower Saluda, and Lower Broad Rivers through advocacy, education, and enforcement of environmental laws.”

When Stangler is able to wiggle free from conversations with potential contributors for a few moments, I ask him if, when he took the job nearly seven years ago, he knew that it would call for him to not only patrol the region’s rivers, but also grow the organization.

He says he knew what he was getting into.

“I knew there were going to be a million things to do,” Stangler notes. “I knew what it was. … I knew it was testifying at the State House. I knew it was organizing cleanups. I knew it was responding to the calls. And you jump in and it’s also the administrative stuff. The accounting. The paperwork. The grant reports. And then you had to go raise money. I found out real fast I had to raise my salary. I got a job, and part of the job was making sure I could get paid.”

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Stangler marks a water collection bottle near the Saluda River. The Midlands Rivers Coalition conducts water quality sampling each week in Columbia.

Wednesday, July 11 — Riverfront Park

It’s a bright Wednesday morning and, though it’s not even 10 o’clock yet, you can already tell it’s going to be one of those days that can only be described as “Columbia hot.”  

At the northern end of the City of Columbia’s Riverfront Park, where the waters of the Broad River flow into the headgates of the Columbia Canal, Stangler is standing on the back bumper of his Toyota FJ Cruiser SUV. He’s using the bumper as a stage, of sorts, to address the dozen or so college-age people standing before him, summer interns from Newell, the umbrella company for a host of brands, including fishing supply labels like Berkley and Shakespeare.

The interns are here for a cleanup day along the Broad River. As they reach for gloves, trash bags and “grabber” sticks, Stangler delivers a little pep talk, telling them to watch out for hooks on wayward fishing line, broken glass, and poison ivy (“If it has leaves of three, leave it be”). He warns them about wildlife — bees, fire ants, snakes and possibly even a fabled alligator named Bob — and tells them they should have no problem finding litter to pick up, as trash in Riverfront Park seems to “constantly regenerate.”

Riverkeeper organizes a river cleanup just about every month, sometimes more frequently in the summer. Riverfront Park is a hot spot for litter, Stangler says, but the organization cleans up other areas, too, along all three of Columbia’s rivers and in popular urban streams. He notes that Keep the Midlands Beautiful also does a healthy amount of river cleanup work each year.

So far in 2018, Congaree Riverkeeper’s had about 147 people volunteer for cleanups, and they’ve collected more than 6,500 pounds of trash and debris from around local rivers and streams.

Among the more unique items they’ve found recently: a dildo, a baby doll impaled with numerous needles, a functioning computer, large political signs, a full-body pillow, bullets and shotgun shells.

“We also found a Little Tikes car, a pink Pontiac one,” Stangler says. “Someone tried to write ‘Bitch, please’ on it, but it said, ‘Bitch plesee’ instead.”

Among those present for the July 11 cleanup, pulling trash and old fishing line and other debris, is Brittany Kilpatrick, Riverkeeper’s new development coordinator.

The Charleston native is, among other things, an attorney with a degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She has relished her role at the nonprofit, which calls for her to raise funds, organize cleanups like this one, handle a healthy amount of social media, coordinate education programs, and hone in on the organization’s marketing, among many other tasks.

Kilpatrick thinks the overarching cause — to watch over the health and well-being of some of Columbia’s most critical natural resources — is a just one.

“I’m a very progressive person, so I think that a lot of issues are really important, including our environment,” Kilpatrick says as we walk along a narrow but well-worn path along the Broad. “We only have one chance to not f#!k it up. So it’s kind of in my wheelhouse in that regard.”

One of the Newell interns is Elle Durbin, a rising senior at USC and a native of natural-resource-rich Colorado. After about an hour of collecting riverside trash in the hot Columbia sun, she puzzled as to why river users won’t simply find a way to dispose of their garbage properly.

“It’s so simple to pick up your beer cans,” Durbin says. “Your beer cans and wrappers and bottles, that stuff is so easy. As you are out enjoying the river, just take your trash with you. It’s so sad to see. … Why won’t people just take their Zaxby’s bag to the trash can, or to their car to throw away at their house?”

Among those who is pleased to see the Riverkeeper staff and the band of college interns on this muggy Wednesday morning is Alex Doucet, a park ranger with the City of Columbia. The rangers handle regular maintenance in the park.

Doucet says the northern end of Riverfront Park has seen more visitors lately, something he attributes to “word of mouth” about the picturesque areas there. While the city’s modest staff does what it can to keep the area clean, Doucet says the help from Riverkeeper and its volunteers is a godsend.

“It makes it enjoyable for our day users,” Doucet tells me. “People will come in here and see all the trash and get discouraged from coming in here. So, [the cleanups] open it up for families and people to get in here and enjoy it and take full advantage of it.”

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Bill Stangler fills a trash bag during a recent river cleanup along the Broad River.

Wednesday, July 11 — The Saluda River

After the morning cleanup along the Broad, Stangler and I hop in his Toyota and take off for the Saluda River. We’re planning to catch up with Franklin Goodwin, from Access Analytical labs, somewhere along the way.

Wednesday is water quality testing day.

For the second summer, Congaree Riverkeeper is one of several private and public organizations that make up the Midlands Rivers Coalition, a group that came together to test the water quality in Columbia’s three rivers and report back to the public on a weekly basis.

Each Wednesday, samples are taken from 11 sites along the Saluda, Broad and Congaree. Access Analytical then runs tests on those samples, to see whether or not they have elevated levels of bacteria. The results of those tests are published on Thursdays on the coalition’s website — howsmyscriver.org — with a simple system for letting users know whether it’s cool to swim in a given geographic area: a green icon if water quality is good, and an orange icon if there are elevated bacteria levels.

We catch up with Goodwin near Canoeing for Kids, a nonprofit along the Saluda that organizes canoeing and kayaking excursions for disadvantaged kids. This is one of the 11 testing sites the coalition uses.

Goodwin places the plastic container bottles at the end of a long, retractable pole, then looks for the perfect entry point at the riverbank, and extends the pole as far as it will possibly go out into the water.

He tells me he’s trying to reach out beyond any calm, stagnant pockets of water that might be at the river’s edge.

“We’re trying to go where there’s a current, where there’s a flow,” Goodwin says. “We don’t want it stagnant and still. We pull from a source that’s moving.”

The samples taken on July 11 will later come back clear, with no elevated levels of bacteria.

Stangler and I later tag along with Goodwin to another sampling site, in Saluda Shoals Park. Stangler helps Goodwin collect the water sample, then calls me over to an unassuming section of water, and points out a pipe that is visible at the edge of the water. It’s the Carolina Water Service discharge pipe from the utility’s Friarsgate facility, where treated wastewater from a sewer plant spills out.

There is a fisherman standing in the river, his feet not six inches from the mouth of the discharge pipe. The following exchange ensues:

Stangler to me: “When that pipe’s going, it’s bubbling out and there’s foam and stuff like that.”

Fisherman, overhearing: “It was doing that earlier, as a matter of fact.”

Stangler to the fisherman: “That’s a sewer discharge. It’s supposed to be treated, but sometimes they’ve had some problems the last couple years.”

Fisherman: “Is it safe, or…?”

Stangler: “Well, we just took a sample right there, so I can tell you tomorrow.”

Fisherman: Laughs nervously “Maybe I shouldn’t be putting my feet in it, then.”

Stangler assures the man there haven’t been any elevated sampling results at that site lately, and directs him to the coalition’s website for future information and river advisories.

As we ride away, I can’t help but think about the fact that the Saluda River is 200 miles long, and that fisherman managed to plant his bare feet directly in the path of a sewer discharge pipe.

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Congaree Riverkeeper Bill Stangler removes a wad of fishing line one of Columbia's rivers.

Thursday, July 12 — State Street Baptist Church

The fellowship halls in older churches always smell the same, no matter the denomination. It’s a fragrance all its own, at once clean and old.

I’m met with that aroma as I slip in the side door of State Street Baptist Church in Cayce and walk downstairs to a fellowship hall for a meeting of the Cayce Avenues Neighborhood Association. More than 20 neighbors are on hand to talk about neighborhood issues, get an update from the Cayce Department of Public Safety about recent crime in the area, and hear a presentation from Stangler about Congaree Riverkeeper.

These types of presentations, where Stangler can get up in front of a civic group and spread the gospel (no pun intended) about Columbia’s rivers, have become increasingly common. As the nonprofit’s reputation has swelled, so has the community’s interest and curiosity.

The Avenues neighbors were ready for Stangler’s appearance. They pepper the river advocate with questions about issues that have been in the news recently, particularly as the possible removal of the coal tar from the Congaree.

The neighborhood group also is curious about Southern Lights, the laser arts installation being planned for the Congaree, between the Gervais Street and Blossom Street bridges. The project — which stalled last summer after technical problems with the lasers — is now closer to becoming a reality. When fully operational, organizers plan for the lasers to be beamed over the Congaree every night for 10 years.

Stangler hasn’t hidden his concerns about Southern Lights, which is being organized by One Columbia, What’s Next Midlands?, EngenuitySC and others, and he doesn’t hold back when talking to the Cayce group.

“My biggest concern is that this thing is supposed to be every night for 10 years,” Stangler says. “The lasers are a concern. … I tell you what I think. I’ve never looked at a river and stood there and said, ‘You know what this river needs to make it beautiful? A bunch of lasers.’”

The crowd in the fellowship hall liked that one.

After the meeting with the Cayce Avenues neighbors, Stangler tells me the group was more engaged than some of the organizations he speaks to.

“Usually we’ll get questions about the hot topics in the news, things people have been hearing about and seeing about,” Stangler says. “The Cayce Avenues folks were certainly up on what’s going on and wanting to engage on those issues, which makes sense with their proximity to the river, and how much Cayce identifies itself with the river.”

At the end, Stangler assured me that I had shadowed him on a “pretty typical week,” though he said there was a bunch of stuff that I didn’t see: the stuffing of board meeting packets, the updating of accounting books, hour-and-a-half phone calls with lawyers, etc.

He tells me it’s all part of trying to improve the rivers, one little bit at a time.

“This didn’t happen overnight,” he says. “When I started, I’d say, ‘I’m Bill with Congaree Riverkeeper,” and people would say, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ That’s changed a little bit. I think, with the work we’ve done on important issues, people have seen the value of our rivers to our community, and to our long-term growth in the Midlands.”  

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