By Stan Welch
DHEC officials, meeting with two County Council members and representatives of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to a full cleanup of the fuel spill that contaminated at least two streams in the area of the Belton tank farm in the Cheddar community.
County Councilwoman Cindy Wilson, who called the meeting, expressed ongoing concerns she has about the cleanup of more than three hundred fifty thousand gallons of petroleum products spilled from a leaking weld in the Plantation pipeline in 2014. That spill went undiscovered until it reached the point where local residents reported it based on physical evidence in the area.
Wilson expressed concerns over some of the testing methods, including the aeration of the waters contained in beaver ponds, intimating that the aeration process skews the results of the testing. “We would prefer that aeration be stopped for a certain period just prior to testing.”
She also questioned the proposal by Kinder Morgan, the responsible company, to reduce the frequency of the testing. “Our goal is zero product in the environment and this change doesn’t seem conducive to that goal.”
Mihir Mehta, division director for DHEC, assured her, along with District Three Councilman Ray Graham, that DHEC is committed to the cleanup, but cautioned that it has been underway for only a year or so. “We are committed to seeing this cleanup conducted in a timely and appropriate manner, and will remain on the job until that is completed. But we have always said that this is a long term solution and will take a number of years.”
He added that the first annual report on the monitoring and cleanup is in DHEC’s hands and is going through the review and comment phase right now. “We will then present it to Kinder Morgan, acknowledging the things that are working and suggesting changes to the things we don’t see as being effective. As of this moment, Kinder Morgan is complying with our requirements.”
He also mentioned that Kinder Morgan is also suggesting the possibility of an alternative source of the pollution; a claim that led Wilson to say that the only other possible source would be the ethanol facility also owned by Kinder Morgan. Chris DeScherer, an attorney for the SELC, asked if the company had provided any supporting evidence for their claim. Mehta conceded they have not.
A lawsuit against Kinder Morgan concerning the oil spill was revived earlier this year when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by a District Court judge last year.
Senior District Court Judge Henry Herlong’s decision to dismiss a suit filed by two environmental organizations last year was reversed by a 2-1 vote of the three judge Court of Appeals. The suit, filed by Upstate Forever and the Savannah Riverkeeper charged that Kinder Morgan was responsible for the spill of approximately 370,000 gallons of fuel into two creeks in the Belton area, fuel which they claim eventually reached Broadway Lake, Lake Secession, Lake Russell and eventually the Savannah River. The SELC represented the plaintiffs in that case.
DeScherer also decried the proposal to reduce testing, saying that there is still a great deal of pollution present. “Aeration is also problematic, potentially causing significant skewing of the data to favor the company’s claims. We would also like to see a recharacterization of the site.” That would involve a redefining of the boundaries of the pollution, to determine if it has expanded or moved into new areas.
Mehta reiterated the agency’s commitment to the cause, saying that they would use their full regulatory authority. When asked if Kinder Morgan could unilaterally reduce the frequency of monitoring, he said simply that DHEC would certainly hope the company wouldn’t see fit to do that.
The parties agreed to a public meeting later this fall to report on the findings of the report, after Kinder Morgan had received the comments and other feedback from the agency.