Polluted wasteland being transformed into park, playing fields at Saluda Shoals

jholleman@thestate.comJune 6, 2014 

When soccer players hit the grass at the new fields at Saluda Shoals Park, they’ll be playing in an area that once was polluted with industrial carcinogens.

The Irmo Chapin Recreation Commission isn’t hiding that. The effort to transform the polluted industrial site into a public park dominated the speeches Thursday at the groundbreaking for the new section of the agency’s popular park along the Saluda River.

Agency executive director Elizabeth Taylor referred to the property’s past as “a blighted landscape, and today marks a new beginning, a transformation.”

John Sowards, chairman of the commission, noted that 10 years ago the 128-acre site was dominated by a shuttered plant that made capacitors and left behind a legacy of pollution. For that reason, some in the community argued the agency made a poor decision to buy the property for $2.4 million in 2004 for a proposed water park.

Then-agency executive director Dan Wells took the heat for buying the land at several public meetings on the water park proposal. The water park idea was turned down by voters, but the agency held onto the land for future projects.

“Recall the lambasting that everybody took 91/2 years ago for this ‘boondoggle,’” Sowards said. “This boondoggle is now being re-purposed into a green site and playgrounds. ... What a wonderful resolution to this piece of property.”

State health officials removed the upper few feet of dirt in two polluted sections in 2013, scraping up soil polluted with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and industrial solvents from the former BC Components plant, according to Ken Taylor, director of the Division of Site Assessment, Remediation & Revitalization at DHEC.

The solvents had been identified in the 1990s in the groundwater by the industrial operation, and the PCBs were discovered later during tests done for the recreation agency. The recreation agency couldn’t afford the expensive removal of PCB-tainted soil. DHEC stepped up to help, forcing previous owners to pay a portion of the cost and spending about $450,000 of state money on the cleanup. DHEC is going after the original polluters to repay that cost.

The PCB contamination was found under the main manufacturing building and in a former drainage ditch. After the soil was removed from those spots, the excavated areas were filled with clean soil. As part of the preparation for the new soccer fields, an additional 1 to 3 feet of clean soil will be added in a larger area that covers those two polluted spots, Ken Taylor said.

The work didn’t remove all pollutants at the site, but those that remain are far enough under the surface that “they pose no exposure threat to anyone or anything on the surface,” Ken Taylor said.

There are some limitations because of the remaining underground pollution. No drinking water wells should be installed, and the site hasn’t been cleared for residential use. Special guidelines must be followed should the recreation agency need to dig deep in the ground in the area.

Turning a former industrial site into a park or athletic field isn’t unprecedented in the state, Ken Taylor said. A former Celanese acetate plant in Rock Hill is being redeveloped as a project that includes commercial recreation and residential use. The former Umphlett Lumber mill site in Moncks Corners is being transformed into a recreational ball field complex by the Town of Moncks Corners. And the former Bell Buoy Seafood on Edisto Island was cleaned up and is now a public park and public access boat ramp.

The construction on the new phase of Saluda Shoals began in recent weeks, and some facilities in the park are expected to be ready by the spring of 2015, Elizabeth Taylor said. Soccer fields and tennis courts will dominate the nearly 60 acres nearest the intersection of St. Andrews Road and Bush River Road. About 60 acres closer to the Saluda River will be home to a ropes course, a zip line, a boat landing and trails and a road along the river connecting to the existing section of Saluda Shoals Park.

DHEC director Catherine Templeton, who grew up in Irmo participating in the agency’s programs, praised those involved for sticking with the process through the years of paperwork and regulations involved when federal and state agencies have to approve pollution cleanups.

“This thing has been regulated and regulated,” Templeton said. “The most important part and everybody’s goal is to make sure this was a place that’s safe for the children and for everyone that uses it, and a source of pride for the community. And you have accomplished that. You’ve executed on a vision that most people would not have undertaken.”

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