Richland votes to stop Fairfield’s wastewater plant

COLUMBIA – In what Fairfield officials say was an unprecedented action, Richland County Council voted unanimously on May 5 to direct staff and technical committee appointees to vote in opposition to Fairfield County’s plans to construct a wastewater treatment plant that they say would bring industry, jobs, housing subdivisions and general prosperity to Fairfield.

The three-page document, produced by Richland County Assistant Administrator John Thompson at the behest of Councilwoman Joyce Dickerson, outlines the concerns of Richland County residents who live along Cedar Creek where Fairfield’s treated effluent will be discharged. Dickerson, who is battling for her council seat in the June 9 Democratic primary, said many of the Cedar Creek residents live in her district.

Thompson sent the document along with letters urging denial of the treatment facility to the Environmental Planning Advisory Committee (EPAC), the Bureau of Water for S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC), and the Central Midlands Council of Governments (CMCOG) which is the governing authority that allocates capacity for the wastewater treatment facilities in the midlands.

Should these agencies bow to Richland’s directives, Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor said it would be devastating for Fairfield. Fairfield County has had recent success in recruiting new industry. With only 34,000 gallons per day left, a single small employer could consume the remaining capacity.  

“Without a new wastewater treatment facility, economic and community development would stop,” Taylor said. “We would not be able to recruit new industry, new housing subdivisions or other commercial development. It would bring future growth to a standstill. This wastewater treatment facility is absolutely critical to the future of Fairfield County, without it there would be no new jobs.

Later in the summer, Fairfield will present its proposal to the EPAC (Environmental Planning Advisory Committee), a recommending body to the COG board which will have the final say on whether to allocate capacity for the proposed facility.

In the document, Thompson includes an extensive excerpt from DHEC’s web page that DHEC acknowledges is outdated. The document also lists what he says are reservations expressed by Cedar Creek residents – primarily that the wastewater effluent will contaminate the creek water as well as the aquifers that supply their water wells, their only source of drinking water,

Fairfield County Director of Economic Development Ty Davenport said the document is based on fears, not facts.

Chuck Williams with SCDHEC, told The Voice that there is no record of any water wells in South Carolina being contaminated with wastewater, that most contamination of private water wells in the state is caused by nearby septic tanks.

Engineers and SCDHEC refute the assertion that the effluent discharged into the creek will impact aquifers and resident water wells. They say Fairfield’s proposed facility will not impact the aquifers.

“If the community ‘just doesn’t want it,’ the 208 Plan is the venue to hear those concerns,” Thomas & Hutton senior Engineer Jeff deBessonet said. “A new state-of-the-art facility would open the door for the elimination of the older Ridgeway treatment system and provide a high-quality treatment facility to manage growth in Fairfield County.”

County Administrator Jason Taylor said the county is going to great expense to be sure they have a system in place that will discharge the highest quality effluent into the creek.

John Culbreth, with Thomas and Hutton engineering consultants, said at the Jan. 13 Fairfield county council meeting that the treated effluent discharged from Fairfield’s facility would be processed by a state-of-the-art treatment system – a membrane bioreactor (MBR) system – that would not contaminate the creek. He said it is an advanced level of treatment that would discharge water of near drinking water quality. He said that discharge is frequently used to irrigate golf courses and crops and for other similar uses.

Shawn Goff, who lives on Cedar Creek and opposes the discharge into the creek, agreed that the MBR technology, from his research, is the best of the best.

“If you have to have one, this is the one you want,” Goff told his fellow Cedar Creek residents at a community meeting held at the community center in Cedar Creek in January. “I can’t tell you that it’s the devil, because it’s the most advanced wastewater treatment facility that’s available. There are no open pools. It’s all contained and it has a small footprint, about seven acres. Anyone can Google and do the research. I was trying my darndest to find some piece of bad press or something that has happened at one of these plants, and I can’t,” Goff said. “They say the creek will be cleaner than it is now.”

Davenport said that any Fairfield industries producing high levels of contaminants would be required by law to pre-filter those contaminants out of the water before it is sent to the Fairfield wastewater facility.

While Thompson acknowledged that the proposed plant would use MBR tertiary treatment technology, he listed two links that he said referenced several failures of MBR technology

Davenport pushed back, noting that the two references dealt primarily with failures that could be caused from neglected maintenance of the system.

“If you don’t maintain an airplane, it will fall out of the sky,” Davenport said. “There are no references in either of these sources to downstream impacts on the environment, other facilities and jurisdictions as the Richland document suggests.”

“We are proposing a treatment process that will be as good if not better than any other facility in the midlands,” Taylor said. “To deny us without looking at all the facts is short sited.  Our proposed facility is a win for all of us. Quality treatment is a win for the region it’s in and for the state.”

Thompson also objected to the Fairfield facility because he said it will affect the permitting of Richland County’s Broad River wastewater treatment plant, resulting in Richland spending more money to treat their effluent.

Thompson put it this way: Richland’s “concentration of impurities will have to be curtailed to minimize our impact on the environment. Removal of contaminants such as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), ammonia, phosphates, and pathogens will necessitate the installation, operation, and continued maintenance of complex components if we are to maintain the same biological cumbering at the discharge of the Broad River WWTP.”

Davenport said that’s actually a good thing. With the Big Cedar Creek discharging into Richland’s Broad River plant’s effluent, it would, he said, cause Richland to have to clean its effluent to a higher degree.

Richland’s County Council Chair Paul Livingston wrote in his letter to the Bureau of Water that Fairfield has other options such as connecting to the City of Columbia or even expanding and/or upgrading the existing Winnsboro wastewater plant. Neither are viable options, Taylor said.

“Winnsboro discharges into Jackson Creek which is already at capacity and therefore is not allowed by DHEC to take more effluent,” Taylor said. “And connecting to the City of Columbia is a financial impossibility for Fairfield.

“The cost to the tax and rate payers would be insurmountable. It would cost twice as much money just to run lines and, in the end, we would not create new capacity or control our own capacity,” Taylor said. “After reviewing a number of different options, we have come to terms with discharging into cedar creek. All other options studied didn’t work for financial, permitting, or engineering reasons.”


News Commentary: It’s What Fairfield Needs

by Randy Bright

A recent article on the front page of the Post and Courier highlighted the success of Fairfield County government’s aggressive efforts to develop Fairfield into a rural industrial powerhouse.

The article helps to remind us the county is not sitting on its industrial laurels. In fact, the county is working to expand and update its water capacity to attract more industry, peripheral suppliers and other businesses. This will attract more jobs and more tax dollars.

It will also improve living conditions to mitigate the county’s reliance on Columbia labor instead of Fairfield labor.

The county’s plans to upgrade Fairfield’s aging and limited capacity sewer system is an imperative to improving Fairfield’s citizens’ future health, prosperity and general welfare. As if to highlight Fairfield’s needs, Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics delivered the following message as part of their Investing in Rural Sewage Infrastructure for Economic Growth study in 2018:

“Building water and wastewater infrastructure in rural communities across the U. S. creates jobs, stimulates investment from the private sector and increases a county’s tax base. For each dollar spent building water or wastewater infrastructure, about $15 are created in private investment and $14 [added] to the local property tax base.”

Supplying rural areas with wastewater infrastructure has the potential to increase economic activity in a number of ways, including reducing out-migration of [county] residents and attracting industry to generate jobs, which would attract residents.

Out-migration, which could partly be driven by a lack of wastewater services, further exacerbates the problem because it decreases the tax base on which a county can draw to provide such services. When this happens, counties either remain in the same position (at best) or their circumstances worsen because they cannot generate enough revenue to expand their wastewater infrastructure. Rural communities are thus trapped in a Catch-22.

Nothing improves living conditions and retains population like an adequately functioning sewer system.