Lower Saluda River

 The lower Saluda River. File photo.

Could another discharge of treated wastewater into a Midlands body of water be eliminated?

It depends on continued negotiations between two entities — the Town of Lexington and Blue Granite Water Company (formerly Carolina Water Service) — whose relationship has been frosty in recent years.

Some utilities are given permits to discharge a certain amount of treated sewage into the state's rivers. But the practice has increasingly come under scrutiny in the Midlands, in part because of past violations by Blue Granite.

At the end of March, Blue Granite and another local government, the City of Columbia, reached an agreement that ended the discharge of treated wastewater from Blue Granite’s Friarsgate plant into the Saluda River.

On May 7, the entities made it extra official, holding a ceremony in which the pipe that once discharged the wastewater from Friarsgate was literally ripped out of the ground at Saluda Shoals Park.

The Friarsgate plant has been connected with the City of Columbia’s wastewater treatment system via a wholesale interconnection and treatment agreement. That marks the second discharge from the company formerly known as Carolina Water Service that’s been ended in a little more than a year’s time. The oft-controversial discharge from Blue Granite’s former I-20 plant into the Saluda River formally ended in Feb. 2018. That came after the Town of Lexington took ownership of the I-20 plant, via condemnation, and began pumping wastewater from the I-20 facility to a regional wastewater treatment plant in Cayce. 

The financial conditions of that condemnation remain unresolved between Lexington and Blue Granite, as they have continued to argue in court as to the value of the I-20 facility.

With the discharges from the I-20 plant and Friarsgate having come to an end, a third Blue Granite discharge into local waters is now being eyed: one from the company’s Watergate plant, a small facility that discharges into 14 Mile Creek, not far from Lake Murray. The plant has been in operation since 1973 and services just less than 1,000 customers. That facility hasn’t suffered some of the high-profile pollution discharges that were previously associated with the I-20 plant and Friarsgate, but state records show it did have a 28,000-gallon sanitary sewer overflow in December 2018, brought about by rain and a pump failure.

In a recent conversation with Free Times, Blue Granite President Catherine Heigel, the lawyer and former state Department of Health and Environmental Control chief who joined the private water company in 2018, said Blue Granite wants to end the Watergate discharge.

“Our desire is to connect that facility with the Town of Lexington, and if the town prefers to acquire the facility, rather than connect it, we will not oppose that,” Heigel says. “Because our primary objective is to comply with the terms of our [discharge] permit, which requires that a connection of some sort be made, if a connection is feasible. We have determined that a connection is technically feasible, and economically feasible.”

Heigel also has made overtures about connecting Watergate to the Town of Lexington’s system in a series of emails and letters with the town, copies of which were obtained by Free Times.

“[Blue Granite] does not wish this interconnection with the Town for our Watergate plant to become a source of acrimony or dispute with the Town,” Heigel wrote in a June 2018 letter to Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall. “We are willing to pursue either a wholesale bulk sewer treatment contract with the Town, or not challenge the Town’s right to a statutory condemnation of the Watergate wastewater system.”

While emails between the entities indicate Blue Granite is itching to begin negotiating an interconnection agreement for Watergate, MacDougall tells Free Times the town wants to first settle the matter of the condemnation of Blue Granite’s I-20 plant before it strikes a deal on Watergate. Both sides seem to think the I-20 case could come to a head later this year.

One thing MacDougall makes clear, however, is that the town is much more likely to consider acquiring the Watergate facility via condemnation than entering into some other agreement.

“We’ve gotten information from our bond attorneys that the way we bonded that [wastewater] infrastructure, we cannot add a private entity to it,” MacDougall says. “So, we’d have to take that facility, as well, like we did the I-20 plant. I have a letter from Catherine [Heigel] saying they would not fight a friendly condemnation. … We’ll move forward on it when the time is right. We’ll get through [the I-20 plant court proceedings] first. We should be through with that one fairly soon, and we’ll begin working on [Watergate].”

While Lexington and Blue Granite continue to wrangle with one another, the recent agreement Columbia made with the private water company to end the Friarsgate discharge into the Saluda seemed to go smoothly.

Columbia Assistant City Manager Clint Shealy said the city would have liked to interconnect with Blue Granite for Friarsgate “years ago,” but only recently gained the infrastructure and capacity to do so, via an $18 million wastewater system upgrade just downstream from Saluda Shoals Park.

Shealy said he didn’t have any issues working with officials at Blue Granite.

“I can honestly say it was a very cordial and collaborative and cooperative negotiation to get a contract in place,” Shealy tells Free Times. “I think they saw there was a need there and saw we could say ‘yes’ and fill that need. Everything lined up. The timing lined up well, and the parties negotiated in good faith.”

It’s been more than a year since Heigel took over at the company once known as Carolina Water Service. The former DHEC chief has tried to mend the company’s reputation, which was badly battered in Columbia from years of headlines surrounding pollution from I-20 and Friarsgate.

“When she came in, she had to change the culture,” Blue Granite director of external affairs Michael Cartin tells Free Times. “She had a clear vision. Some of these longstanding issues that have hurt our company in the past in the public eye, she attacked those right out of the gate.”

But as the possibility of ending the discharge from the Watergate facility simmers on the horizon, how and when the two sides get there remains in question. The relationship between Lexington and Blue Granite seemingly remains tenuous.

“They don’t take our community seriously,” MacDougall says. “It’s a joke. We aren’t going to put up with it anymore. We are going to condemn [Watergate] and take it and operate it correctly.”

Meanwhile, Heigel says the recent negotiations with the City of Columbia stand in stark contrast to Blue Granite’s dealings with Lexington.

“[Columbia] signed up to be the regional provider, and looked forward to the day when they could say ‘yes’ to a company that wanted to make the connection,” she says. “Our experience with the Town of Lexington has been exactly the opposite.”

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