Crumbling Columbia: City's water, sewer infrastructure needs work

Some activity is aimed at avoiding more disasters like the one in early 2009 that dumped 526,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Broad River. Six months after that, a broken pipe near Lucius Drive spewed another 400,000 gallons of sewage onto land, threatening the Congaree and Columbia Canal.

Those are just a couple examples of hundreds of incidents, many with potential to seriously damage health and the city's economic future. "We have to have clean water," said Ryan Nevius of the group Sustainable Midlands. "We have to have clean water to have public health. We can't afford to destroy our rivers, which brings tourists here. We can't afford to damage our drinking water which gets extracted from our rivers. We must have clean water to have a city that's a viable city."

Columbia's efforts to fix long-neglected problems with its sewage system are motivated by more than altruism. In December 2008, federal and state environmental agents raid the city's wastewater plant near I-77 and Bluff Road. "We're looking for evidence of criminal activity in the form of documentation or the absence of documentation," said Ivan Kikin of the EPA.
The tips that led to the raid turned up no fraud. "None whatsoever, and that case was dismissed," said Gantt.

But investigators also discovered the city's infrastructure was falling apart. With an agreement to upgrade the sewer system still not finalized, city leaders are trying to convince the government Columbia can handle its sewage issues without even more expensive federal mandates.

And then there's a matter of priorities. For years, critics have accused city leaders of siphoning off tens of millions of dollars in water and sewer revenues and spending it on everything but maintenance and new capacity.

Gantt says the city has since seen the light. "I think the focus of our council now is that the funds generated by water and sewer need to be used primarily for water and sewer," said Gantt.

That's some consolation for customers. "They've been robbing this water money forever," said Olulenu. "Don't rob the water money. Let the water money pay for the sewer system."

City council members could determine at their next meeting how many more dollars will have to flow out of ratepayers' bank accounts to fix crumbling Columbia.

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