State finds toxic lead in more than 100 wa­ter­ways in SC

The State - - Front Page - BY SAMMY FRETWELL [email protected]­


Lead, a heavy metal with a toxic bite, has been found in creeks, rivers and lakes across South Carolina, per­plex­ing state reg­u­la­tors and rais­ing con­cerns about the po­ten­tial threat to peo­ple’s health and the en­vi­ron­ment.

For the first time, the S.C. De­part­ment of Health and En­vi­ron­men­tal Con­trol has iden­ti­fied more than 160 stretches of state wa­ter­ways that it con­sid­ers to be “of con­cern” for lead con­tam­i­na­tion af­ter tests found the metal in the wa­ter, ac­cord­ing to a re­port re­leased by the agency last month.

DHEC has not re­leased data show­ing how much lead is in the wa­ter. But the agency says one con­cern is how lead would af­fect fish and the aquatic or­gan­isms that they feed on.

The state agency says it does not know where the lead came from.

In hu­mans, ex­po­sure to lead can cause brain dam­age in young chil­dren who drink wa­ter or baby for­mula con­tam­i­nated with the heavy metal. Even at low lev­els, lead can de­lay pu­berty in chil- dren, stunt their growth and re­sult in lower IQ lev­els, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute of En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Sciences.

So far, DHEC has not found lead lev­els that would threaten drink­ing wa­ter sup­plies or peo­ple who fish or swim in the wa­ter, but the de­part­ment still is in­ves­ti­gat­ing, spokesman Tommy Crosby said.

DHEC’s find­ings, out­lined in a re­port the agency files ev­ery two years with the fed­eral gov­ern- ment, says three sec­tions of S.C. wa­ter­ways are in the worst shape and in need of cleanup. Those wa­ter­ways are a stretch of Gills Creek at Bluff Road in Columbia, Camp­ing Creek in New­berry County and Cat­tail Branch in Ch­ester­field County.

Most of the wa­ter­ways in the re­port, how­ever, need more study to de­ter­mine how se­ri­ous the lead prob­lem is, ac­cord­ing to DHEC.

Those in­clude stretches of some of South Carolina’s most well-known rivers, in­clud­ing the Great Pee Dee near Florence, the Black near Ge­orge­town, the North Fork of the Edisto in Orange­burg County and the Saluda above Lake Mur­ray. Parts of lakes Mar­ion in Orange­burg County

and Hartwell in Oconee County also are listed as need­ing more study. A sec­tion of Four Hole Swamp, an iconic wet­land area be­tween Columbia and Charleston, also is on the list of wa­ters of con­cern.


Lead, which nat­u­rally oc­curs, pre­vi­ously had not been iden­ti­fied as a wide- spread prob­lem in S.C. rivers and lakes.

Re­searchers say the toxic metal can run off the land’s sur­face and pol­lute rivers. In­dus­trial op­er­a­tions, such as metal-smelt­ing plants, can pol­lute the air and land with lead that then can set­tle into wa­ter­ways, ac­cord­ing to Yale Univer­sity and the Wa­ter Re­search Cen­ter, a web­site that ex­am­ines wa­ter-qual­ity is­sues.

How lead might af­fect drink­ing wa­ter is one of the most im­me­di­ate ques­tions many peo­ple may have. But Crosby said the lev­els his agency has seen do not in­di­cate a threat to hu­man health. Pub­lic wa­ter­works also have ways of treat­ing raw wa­ter that is drawn into their plants to fil­ter out most lead, he said.

“Con­ven­tional drink­ing wa­ter treat­ments use a mul­ti­ple bar­rier ap­proach that re­duces lead from source wa­ter, where present,” Crosby said in an email to The State. “Data col­lected from pub­lic drink­ing wa­ter sys­tems … have not in­di­cated a con­cern for drink­ing wa­ter rel­a­tive to th­ese sites.”

Lead was not found in the sec­tion of the Broad River that sup­plies Columbia’s down­town drink­ing­wa­ter plant.

Still, DHEC does have ques­tions about how lead is af­fect­ing fish and other crea­tures, Crosby said. Lead in wa­ter could hurt wildlife re­pro­duc­tion or kill an­i­mals liv­ing in the wa­ter, de­pend­ing on the level, the agency says.

Re­search has found some fish-eat­ing birds in South Carolina, in­clud­ing bald ea­gles, have toxic lev­els of lead in their blood, some­times caus­ing them to be­come lethar­gic. How­ever, some of that ex­po­sure is re­lated to eat­ing the car­casses of an­i­mals killed by hun­ters us­ing lead shot.


Eat­ing fish pol­luted with lead also can be a health con­cern for peo­ple.

South Carolina al­ready has is­sued warn­ings against res­i­dents eat­ing more than mod­er­ate amounts of fish from many of the state’s rivers be­cause of pol­lu­tion from an­other heavy metal, mer­cury.

River­keep­ers in Columbia and Au­gusta said they are wor­ried about DHEC’s find­ings and want to know more.

“I have heard them say there is no pub­lic health con­cern,” Con­ga­ree River­keeper Bill Stan­gler said of DHEC. “I want them to make the case to the pub­lic and pro­vide the sup­port­ing in­for­ma­tion.”

Sa­van­nah River­keeper Tonya Boni­tat­i­bus said she wants state law­mak­ers to look into the is­sue.

DHEC has had in­for­ma­tion on lead in wa­ter for years but only re­cently in­cluded it in a re­port to the U.S. En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, she said.

That re­port filed with the EPA shows wa­ters in South Carolina that need to be cleaned up or stud­ied more care­fully be­cause of var­i­ous types of pol­lu­tion. Un­til this year, wide­spread ev­i­dence of lead in S.C. wa­ter­ways has not been men­tioned in the re­ports.

Boni­tat­i­bus said she is con­cerned peo­ple fish­ing in ar­eas with lead in the wa­ter could be ex­posed to the toxic metal.

“Th­ese are se­ri­ous health is­sues,” she said. “We need to an­swer th­ese ques­tions.”


Crosby said DHEC now is iden­ti­fy­ing lead in S.C. rivers, lakes and streams be­cause the agency is check­ing for the toxin at lower con­cen­tra­tions than it did prior to 2009. Since 2009, the agency also has used a dif­fer­ent method to de­tect lead than it did pre­vi­ously.

The new method “will al­low more pre­cise and fo­cused eval­u­a­tion of this is­sue go­ing for­ward,” Crosby said.

DHEC’s Crosby said the agency doesn’t know why lead has shown up in so many wa­ter­ways, but it is in­ves­ti­gat­ing. His­tor­i­cally, the ma­te­rial has been used in man­u­fac­tur­ing for an ar­ray of pur­poses, rang­ing from bul­lets and fish­ing gear to wa­ter pipes.

“As part of the next phase of work on this is­sue, the de­part­ment will eval­u­ate the po­ten­tial for man-in­duced sources with link­age to the wa­ter sites,” Crosby said in an email.


Toxic lead in wa­ter­ways is a con­cern. Con­ga­ree River­keeper Bill Stan­gler col­lects wa­ter sam­ples sev­eral years ago. “I have heard them say there is no pub­lic health con­cern,” Stan­gler said re­cently of DHEC. “I want them to make the case to the pub­lic and pro­vide the sup­port­ing in­for­ma­tion.”

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