Vigilance needed to keep river healthy

A new report underscores the importance of protecting the Savannah River.

newsroom@islandpacket.comJuly 16, 2014 

More than a few residents have been squinting at their glasses of tap water following a report by a Georgia-based environmental group that called into question the health of the Savannah River, the water source for more than 150,000 people in Beaufort and Jasper counties.

According to the new report by the Environmental Georgia Research and Policy Center, the Savannah River is the third-most polluted river in the country. More than 5 million pounds of toxic pollutants were dumped into it in 2012. Only the lower Ohio-Little Pigeon River in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky and the upper part of the New River in North Carolina and Virginia had more total chemical discharge by weight in 2012, according to the report.

The chemicals dumped into the Savannah River include ones that can cause cancer and reproductive problems, according to the study.

The report has put local water-utility officials on the defensive. Officials with the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority claim the figures are misleading because the river meets state and federal water-quality standards. The discharges the report is referencing are ones that the authority knows about, that it treats and monitors continually, and that exist at permitted levels, they say.

"There is no impending doom," said Chris Petry, chief operating officer of the authority. "As a matter of fact, (the river) is getting better as time goes on."

Both sides make good and accurate points that utility customers should take into account before passing judgement on their drinking water:

  • Inherent danger exists when a body of water is used as both a drinking source and a dumping ground for companies. And 26 permitted facilities, including DSM Chemicals North America and International Paper plants, dump waste into the 100 miles of river between Augusta, Ga., and BJWSA's intake in Jasper County.

  • But it's also true that the water is treated and consistently meets the standards set by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control before it comes out of our sinks.

  • It's arguable whether the standards are stringent enough. And BJWSA has no control over that. Federal action is necessary to raise the water-quality bar.

    At this time, vigilance and advocacy are the best local routes. BJWSA should continue to carefully monitor and treat river water while also ramping up its advocacy efforts on behalf of the river.

    Petry said companies that utilize the river and the water authority already meet on a regular basis and discuss possible improvements. That's good, and we hope these talks will soon bear fruit to reduce the amount of chemical byproducts in the river and to substitute dangerous chemicals with safer alternatives.

    The health of the Savannah River must be a top priority for us all. Taking a closer look at what can be done now to preserve its health is an endeavor to which we can all raise a glass.

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