SC water utility wants $450 million from accused polluters -, Myrtle Beach/Florence SC, Weather

SC water utility wants $450 million from accused polluters


Chesterfield County's public water utility wants two of the area's largest employers to pay $450 million dollars to help the utility pay for filtering system Alligator Rural Water and Sewer installed after chemical contamination showed up in the utility's water supply in 2005.

Alligator Rural Water and Sewer filed a $450 million lawsuit last month in Chesterfield County against McLeod Farms and Mar Mac Wire after the utility said it found evidence to show both entities were the source of the pollution around McBee. The suit alleges McLeod Farms and Mar Mac Wire are responsible for three chemicals that have shown up in the private water supply around the town of McBee.

State health regulators threatened to fine and shut down Alligator Water utility's wells over the past few years after finding two potentially cancer-causing chemicals in utility's water supply. DHEC found the chemicals during routine inspections between January 2005 and December 2008. Alligator Water started investigating the source of the contamination and called in the U.S. Geological Survey and hired an attorney.  

"They got above the levels that DHEC allows and so, we had to start paying for filtering out those chemicals," Alligator Water attorney Billy Spencer said. DHEC forced Alligator Water to install carbon filters on several of its wells around the county. The filtering systems cost the utility company more than $15 million. The costs of the systems have been passed on to water customers and have caused Alligator Water customer's water bills to rise by 50 percent in the past couple of years.

"We've had to borrow money from the USDA to put some of these projects in that were designed to filter these chemicals out and at a great cost. So, we have to pay those loans back," Spencer said.

The utility company's also borrowed around $700,000 to have the USGS open an investigation in Chesterfield County. The federal agency is working to figure out how long the chemicals have been in the water supply, where the contamination's coming from and to develop an estimation of how long it may take the chemicals to leave the aquifer.       

DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said the USGS would be responsible for tracking down the contamination's sources and the people responsible for it. However, USGS hydrologist Bruce Campbell who is heading the Chesterfield County project told WIS that DHEC was the "regulatory agency" and would be responsible for any enforcement efforts dealing with the source of the contamination.

A 2007 DHEC well investigation map shows the highest contamination levels in the heart of McLeod Farms; one of the state's largest peach farms. The farm uses some of the wells identified on the map to irrigate the peach trees and farm produce that McLeod farms and sells to the public.

Of the farm's 18 wells, DHEC found 12 with traces or excessive chemical contamination, according to the 2007 DHEC map. The lawsuit accuses McLeod Farms of poisoning the Chesterfield County water supply, but the lawsuit does not give details as to exactly how and when.

After multiple attempts to reach McLeod Farm's president Kemp McLeod during our investigation, we went to McLeod Farms to speak with him. McLeod drove up to our camera, which was set up on the public right-of-way outside his farm's Highway 1 headquarters, "I want to talk to you about this lawsuit involving you and Alligator," Barr said. "I have no comment," McLeod replied, "My lawyer says I have no comment."

A DHEC aerial map shows a possible dump site on the McLeod Farm. It's located right behind the farm's migrant camp near the Highway 145 and Old Wire Road intersection. The map has a spot marked "dump site (?)" and is located yards away from the most contaminated drinking well that DHEC tested, according to the map obtained by WIS.

DHEC's 2007 map shows the migrant camp well's contamination was nearly 200-times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for contaminants. A follow up test last year showed the contamination doubled--to 400 times above the EPA limit.

It's the same story around Mcleod Farm's roadside stand on Highway 151. DHEC's records show the agency tested three wells in the produce fields here; all three, according to the map came back with elevated levels of chemical contamination, according to the 2007 map.

The lawsuit also accuses Mar Mac Wire of polluting the water supply with some of the chemicals uncovered in the DHEC and the USGS investigation, but the lawsuit does not detail the allegations against the wire manufacturer. While shooting video outside the plant last week Mar Mac Wire president Andy Johnson walked out to talk with us. Johnson offered no explanation on the lawsuit, "I don't think we're going to be able to help you," Johnson said, "We'd really like for you to leave and not be filming," the president said. A call to the wire plant's chief executive officer John Martin, III yielded a "No comment."

SC Environmental Law Project Director Amy Armstrong said the chemical contamination is more serious than DHEC led people to believe in its 2008 public hearing, "It's a concern because we have limits for a reason and when they exceed limits, then that is the red flag that hey, we need to look at this," Armstrong said.

Armstrong's Georgetown law firm's won dozens of pollution cases against accused polluters across the state. She said the levels showing up in public and private wells around McBee pose a threat to anyone using well water and have for some time, "From the evidence, it's been about 30 years that they've been in the environment and they still are there today. They're persistent, they don't just go away and that's a cause for concern.

The $450 million suit would go toward paying off federal loans Alligator Water used for the upgrades the water company had to make by installing the filters and constructing a two-million gallon holding tank at its Highway 151 location, according to the utility's attorney.

The USGS is in Chesterfield County working to figure out where the contamination entered the ground water, how long it's been there and how long it could take to push it out. The USGS plans to finish its report sometime in 2013. USGS records show it could take hundreds of years for the contaminants to leave the Chesterfield County aquifer.

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