Conestee dam could spell disaster for the Reedy River, owner says
Published February 9, 2017 in The Greenville Journal
By Andrew Moore, The Greenville Journal
To hear the Conestee Foundation’s Dave Hargett tell it, Lake Conestee is one step closer to causing one of the worst environmental disasters in the Upstate since the 1996 Colonial Pipeline spill. That spill dumped nearly 1 million gallons of diesel fuel into the Reedy River.
Lake Conestee, which is located on the Reedy River near Mauldin, holds about 2.8 million tons of sediment that’s been polluted with heavy metals like arsenic, pesticides, and cancer-causing chemical compounds. The toxins are thought to have been discharged from the textile mills, coal plants, and dyeing operations that were once located along the Reedy River.
The toxins eventually mixed with the river’s sediment and flowed downstream to Lake Conestee, where it now sits behind a 125-year-old stone masonry dam that’s quickly failing.
In December, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control rated the Lake Conestee dam in poor condition because its mortar is deteriorating and water from the lake is seeping through small cracks, according to DHEC spokeswoman Jennifer Read.
“I think the dam could last another 10 years or so if it’s left alone. But it could slip if a significant flood or seismic event were to hit Greenville. … It’s very unpredictable at this point,” Hargett said. “Failure would be catastrophic.”
Within 48 hours of the dam’s failure, large pieces of woody debris from Lake Conestee would likely float down the Reedy River and damage the Conestee Road bridge, which was built in 1958. That would close Conestee Road and disrupt businesses between Mauldin Road and the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, according to Hargett.
The dam would also release the lake’s toxic sediment into the Reedy River, where it would eventually float downstream to Boyd Pond in Laurens and Lake Greenwood, which provides drinking water for more than 40,000 Greenwood County residents.
“There’s actually enough sediment in the lake to fill the [Carolina] Panthers stadium, and it’s going to come blasting out into the Reedy if the dam’s not eventually repaired or replaced,” Hargett said. “Dams don’t last forever.”
Now, the Conestee Foundation, the nonprofit that purchased the lake property in 2000, is trying to prevent the dam’s failure. Hargett has asked DHEC to include a $185,000 proviso in its 2017-2018 budget to fund an engineering study that will help the foundation identify a long-term solution for the dam.
The state House Ways and Means health care subcommittee has approved the proviso, according to Hargett. However, it also has to be approved by the House and Senate. “DHEC has been really supportive throughout the process, but you never really know how it’ll play out,” Hargett said. “The state might not have enough money.”
If the proviso is approved, Hargett plans to finish the study this year and eventually build a dam that protects the Reedy River for more than 100 years. However, that could cost at least $30 million.
“We’re not going to ask taxpayers to pay for the new dam. But the study allows us to be shovel-ready should federal assistance come along later down the road,” Hargett said. “The only other option would be to go after the responsible parties that contaminated the river.”
Many of the companies once located along the Reedy River have gone out of business, making it almost impossible for the foundation to file a suit under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund laws, he added.
Also, the foundation can’t remove the dam because it would cost more than $1 billion to remove the toxic sediment from the lake. That means the foundation will likely need to build a new dam further downstream, leaving the Conestee dam to act as the first line of defense against the water and sediment, Hargett said.
In 2000, Hargett started the Conestee Foundation and used settlement funds from the Colonial Pipeline spill to purchase Lake Conestee and its dam. The nonprofit had to repair the dam in 2001 after a gate unclogged and released toxic sediment downstream. The foundation was also awarded a $200,000 grant from the EPA in 2011 to perform another major repair.
So far, the foundation has spent more than $350,000 on engineering assessments, repairs, and maintenance, Hargett said. “We’ve really done everything we can to keep the dam from falling apart.”
Hargett added that the foundation entered a voluntary cleanup contract with DHEC in 2000 and sampled the lake’s water until 2008. The health department determined that it was best for the foundation to leave the dam alone, allowing the sediment to settle at the bottom of the lake.
Now, the dam poses a larger threat to future developments along the Reedy River.
Hargett said the nearby Conestee Mill has garnered interest from several developers over the years. And if the property was ever redeveloped for retail or housing, DHEC would reclassify the dam as a high hazard structure, meaning its failure would likely result in the loss of life.
“We’re not discouraging the development of the mill. That’d be great for the area,” Hargett said. “We just want the mill to be developed responsibly.”