Pelion family sues sewage dump over contaminated water

Pelion family sues sewage dump over contaminated water

Source: The State, Columbia, SC, December 2, 2012
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Cooking was easy until Peggy Wise learned that toxins were polluting her family’s water supply.

Soon after the discovery two years ago near Pelion, state regulators installed a filter system under her kitchen sink to provide clean drinking water.

But the system is limited in the amount of clean water it can deliver at one time. And when that runs out, Wise has no clean water to cook with or make sweet tea. It takes hours for the system to replenish itself, she said.

“You don’t realize how much water you need until you are in a situation like this,” she said. “I just get so aggravated.”

Wise, a gritty 66-year-old grandmother, is so frustrated that she and her husband, Wayne, filed a lawsuit recently against the operator of a nearby sewage dump.

Their lawsuit claims the C.E. Taylor Inc. disposal ground has polluted their backyard well. The pollutant of concern is nitrate, a contaminant that is particularly dangerous to babies.

The Wise’s suit, one of four filed together against the Taylor company, has for the first time made a connection between the sewage dump and pollution of private wells. The couple seeks unspecified damages.

If they are successful in state court, the Wises could force Taylor not only to pay them damages, but also do something state regulators have not required: clean up the groundwater. That could cost millions of dollars but Wise and others say it would remove the threat to surrounding water supplies.

“We believe we have sufficient evidence to show the contamination is coming from the Taylor dump,” said attorney Roy Shelley, whose suit on behalf of the Wise family also says their quality of life has been hurt by noxious odors from the dump.

He declined to disclose what evidence he has to make the connection between the Taylor site and the Wises’ well because the case is pending. The lawsuit says Taylor’s sewage dump has “allowed unsafe levels of hazardous materials to contaminate the groundwater of the plaintiff’s property, making the water undrinkable and unfit for daily use.”

So far, state regulators have not made that link, even though the Taylor sewage dump sits atop nitrate-contaminated groundwater and is just a short distance from the Wise’s home, which is about 20 miles south of Columbia.

Pelion’s sewage dump, the largest in South Carolina, has been a source of complaints since the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control permitted the site in 1989. At the time, DHEC said the disposal site would not pose a threat to the environment. Within years, odors wafted from the property and evidence of groundwater contamination began to surface.

DHEC says the Taylor dump likely polluted groundwater beneath the disposal area. But testing the agency has done shows little evidence the dump contaminated a handful of nearby private wells, including the Wises’.

Agency officials say it makes more sense to monitor the Taylor site to see if groundwater pollution spreads, rather than requiring a cleanup at this time. The agency says nitrate levels are dropping and are expected to go even lower as the dumping concludes at year’s end.

C.E. Taylor’s lawyer, Henry Taylor, says his client didn’t pollute private wells.

Henry Taylor, who is of no relation to C.E. Taylor company executives, said he has information that nitrate is in groundwater uphill from the sewage disposal site, which indicates the pollution is flowing through the property — instead of originating at the sewage disposal area.

“To the best of my knowledge, it has always operated in compliance with its permit” from DHEC, said Taylor, formerly a top lawyer for the now closed Laidlaw hazardous waste landfill in Sumter County. “The contaminants found in the groundwater there are consistent with agricultural activities.”

While the legal battles heat up, DHEC officials say they are preparing for the disposal ground to close permanently at the end of this month. C.E. Taylor chief executive Frank Taylor, saying he was tired of fighting neighbors, announced last month he’ll shut down the site for good.

The Pelion disposal area is a land application site. Sewage pumped from septic tanks or portable toilets, as well as restaurant grease, is hauled to the property in tanker trucks, treated with lime and spread on the ground. Sewage acts as a fertilizer for crops planted on the property.

But if too much sewage is applied, or it is spread on bare earth, nitrate in the waste can trickle through the sandy, permeable soil and pollute groundwater. Nitrate is a toxin particularly dangerous to babies. Drinking baby formula contaminated with nitrate can kill a child by starving the infant of oxygen in the blood.

Questions about water pollution crystallized in 2005, when the state placed the sewage dump on an inventory of property with polluted groundwater. State officials have said the Taylor dump is to blame for the pollution.

Agency records also raise questions about Taylor’s operating practices. While it is legal to spread human waste on grassy fields as a fertilizer, the Taylor dump at times did not have crop cover, records show. DHEC never fined the company.

Frank Taylor says he has always complied with the law.

At one point, the 287-acre sewage dump took more waste from septic tanks and portable toilets than any other site in South Carolina. Some 150 million gallons of sewage have been disposed of on the property, according to DHEC.

To Wise, the sewage dump in her neighborhood is a sad story. She blames DHEC for not properly monitoring and policing the Taylor site. She hopes her lawsuit will bring a happy ending to years of concern in her community.

“We want it cleaned up,” she said. “We have been through so much stress and aggravation.”

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