A new report by a Georgia-based environmental group says the Savannah River is the third-most polluted river in the country.
The report, released last week by the Environment Georgia Research and Policy Center, says that more than 5 million pounds of toxic pollutants were dumped into the river and its tributaries in 2012.
But that's a misleading figure, Beaufort County water-utility officials contend.
The river meets state and federal standards for water quality, including monthly and annual testing for toxins and chemicals by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, according to Chris Petry, chief operating officer of the Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority.
"There's nothing that's happening on the Savannah River that we're not already aware of," Petry said. "These are treated discharges that are meeting permitted limits. There is no impending doom. As a matter of fact, (the river) is getting better as time goes on."
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.
The river is the main source of water for BJWSA, which serves more than 150,000 customers in Beaufort and Jasper counties. The utility treats tens of millions of gallons of river water each day at its two plants before the water is pumped to homes and businesses.
The environmental group's study is based on data reported by industrial facilities to the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory for 2012, the most recent data available. It includes data on waste discharged into waterways that contain chemicals -- for instance, nitrates and nickel -- that have been linked to health problems when found in large concentrations.
However, the amount of such chemicals released into the river is highly regulated by state and federal environmental permits, and further regulations govern BJWSA's treatment of that water, Petry said.
Along the 100 miles of river between Augusta, Ga., and BJWSA's intake in Jasper County, there are 26 permitted facilities dumping waste into the river, including DSM Chemicals North America and International Paper plants, Petry said. BJWSA leaders regularly meet with each of those facilities to discuss discharge amounts and permit regulations, he added.
"We're not just sitting around, saying, 'Oh, geez, this is a great place to dump,' " Petry said. "We've got these permits, but we know we can do better."
Restoring and strengthening federal protections for the headwaters and streams that feed major waterways should be the first step, according to the report. Challenges to the law by industrial companies have threatened those protections, the report adds.
"If we want the Savannah to be clean for future generations of Georgians, we must restore Clean Water Act protections to all of our waterways, and we must do it now," said Jennette Gayer, director of Environment Georgia Research & Policy Center.
In addition, water treatment procedures are not enough, the report says. Industrial facilities need to address the root of the problem by studying their processes to either reduce their chemical byproducts or substitute chemicals they are using for safer alternatives, the report concludes.
Treating Savannah River water is the best long-term answer to water-supply issues in the Lowcountry and Savannah areas, which must contend with saltwater intrusion in wells on the freshwater Upper Floridan Aquifer, according to Dean Moss, former head of BJWSA.
Moss also is a member of the S.C. Governor's Savannah River Committee, which works with environmental and business officials on each side of the state line to plan for the river's long-term health. That includes improving regulations that govern what can be dumped in the river.
Although progress can seem "glacial," further improvements and stricter regulations are being made, according to both Moss and Petry.
"I've been dealing with drinking water all over this county for 30 or 40 years, and the Savannah is a damn good source of water," Moss said. "It's reliable, it's high quality, it's there where we need it."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.
- Environment Georgia Research and Policy Center's "Wasting Our Waterways" report, June 26, 2014
- BJWSA water, sewer rates to rise next month, June 26, 2014
- Savannah River tests would warn Beaufort County water officials of radioactive materials, Feb. 4, 2014
- New treatment should eliminate water odor for northern Beaufort County customers, Jan. 23, 2014