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SC approves Google permit to pull 549 million gallons annually from groundwater aquifer

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Google operates a massive data center at Mt. Holly Commerce Park in Moncks Corner. The internet giant has been permitted by the state to pull a total of 549 million gallons of groundwater per year for its Berkeley County server plant, despite concerns from utilities and conservationists. Brad Nettles/Staff

The internet giant Google has been permitted by the state to pull a total of 549 million gallons of groundwater per year for its Berkeley County server plant — despite concerns from Charleston area utilities, conservationists and residents.

The permit was issued about a week after a Charleston-area review committee recommended the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control deny the permit.

DHEC's move was not unexpected and could lead to legal challenges from environmental and utility groups concerned about the scope of the company's draw.

As part of the approval, DHEC required Google to "make all efforts to reduce the regular demand on groundwater; reserve the groundwater for peak demand times or as a backup water supply; and, develop alternative water sources."

The groundwater was requested to help cool the servers at the expanding operation near Moncks Corner.

Paul Carff, the facilities manager for the Google data center, said the permit would build the data center's sustainability and that the company is committed to responsible water stewardship.

He cited more than $2 billion in investments Google has made in South Carolina "supporting employment opportunities, municipal improvements, educational programs and local nonprofits."

Groundwater is a concern because residents and industries in South Carolina already are drawing it from wells faster than it replenishes below the surface. Water levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and have never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, according to state monitors.

The drop in groundwater, along with more pressure on surface water supplies, has the makings of a water crisis.

Google wants to be able to pull enough water per day from an underground aquifer to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools. The water would be at least a backup to cool servers installed for its $600 million service center expansion, which is already under construction.

A utility waterline is under construction that would provide that much surface water to the company — at a cost.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks is among groundwater users that have taken concerns about the permit to DHEC. The utility now faces a severe cut in its proposed withdrawals. DHEC staff expects to decide on that permit by November, said spokeswoman Laura Renwick.

Clay Duffie, the waterworks general manager, said the utility continues to oppose the additional withdrawal allowed to Google in the DHEC permit.

“Our customers ask me all the time, why would DHEC take groundwater away from the citizens of Mount Pleasant and give it to Google to cool computers. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for that,” Duffie said.

Last week, an advisory committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to deny the permit. At the time, Emily Cedzo of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, said the league would assess its options if DHEC went ahead.

The league has opposed issuing the permit without restrictions, such as a reduction in the volume or a commitment to use the surface well.

"So many folks in the community have serious concerns about Google’s plans to further deplete the groundwater supply, and they don’t believe DHEC is listening," Cedzo said Thursday.

"Someone must stand up for them, so we are thinking through all of the opportunities to better protect this public resource," she said.

Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.

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