Federal judge dismisses Carolina Water suit against Town of Lexington

A lawsuit filed by Carolina Water Service against the town of Lexington has been tossed out by a federal judge.

In her 23-page order dismissing the suit, U.S. District Judge Margaret Seymour ruled the federal court did not have jurisdiction over the issues raised in the case and said they were matters for state government to wrestle with.

CWS, a privately owned water and sewer utility based in Illinois that provides service in the Midlands and a few other parts of the state, had filed suit against the town and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December 2015.

The case sought to compel the town to offer CWS an interconnection from the utility’s leaky, outdated Interstate 20 sewage plant to the town’s nearby sewer line that ties into a regional sewer plant in Cayce.

Currently, treated waste at the plant is being discharged into the lower Saluda River.

The suit also focused on the EPA’s role in the town’s failure to provide an interconnection, arguing the agency should “de-delegate” the town as a regional sewer provider.

The plant serves approximately 2,000 customers in the West Columbia area and generates about 800,000 gallons of sewage daily.

The town so far has resisted any interconnection, saying its public-financing bonds prevent it from selling sewer capacity to a private company, despite the fact the utility is recognized as a public utility under state law.

Town officials also have been clear about their wishes to purchase the plant, along with another CWS sewer plant on Old Chapin Road in Lexington, in order to shut them both down over public safety and environmental concerns.

CWS and its parent company, Utilities Inc., have received numerous violations over the years for discharging wastes into the lower Saluda River from its I-20 plant and others, most recently a discharge this past June from a faulty pipe at its Friarsgate plant in Irmo.

The discharge sent bacteria levels soaring and temporarily closed down popular Saluda Shoals Park to swimmers and boaters. Its effects spread to other area waterways and the Riverbanks Zoo, as well.

Currently, the town and CWS are under orders by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control to formulate a plan together and end any further discharges into the Saluda from the I-20 plant by August 2017. The river is a designated scenic river used by thousands of boaters, fishermen and swimmers.

In its Aug. 1 order, DHEC also denied CWS renewal of its sewage discharge permit at the plant. The utility was ordered as early as 1994 to seek a regional sewer connection. Such a connection finally became available in 1999 when Lexington finished construction of its sewage transmission line. But since then, failed negotiations and feuding have prevented a compromise.

How the suit’s dismissal will affect both sides in complying with the DHEC order seems uncertain.

However, Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said, “it is certainly a step in the right direction.

“DHEC is aware that we are in communication with Carolina Water and working on a date that we can get inspectors in to inspect the I-20 plant and determine a value for the plant so that we may make a reasonable offer,” the mayor said. “It has been and still is our intention to purchase the plant, connect to our sewer line, and shut it down.”

Meantime, CWS president Rick Durham said, “The issue remains that the town of Lexington has refused to interconnect the I-20 facility. CWS will continue to do what it can to facilitate the removal of the discharge pipe from the Saluda River but cannot do it unilaterally.

“The town has so far blocked an interconnection, failed to make CWS an offer to acquire the system, and has taken no action within its power to condemn and take over the system.”

Follow Hal Millard on Twitter @halmillard1.