News 12 First at Five / Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- Outside it was below freezing, but inside Tuesday night's meeting, there was plenty of fire.
While the meeting had no impact on policy or regulation, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) held it to spread information and answer questions about an Aiken County potato farm that could soon pump 9.6 billion gallons of water from the South Edisto River each year.
"If you want to get Walther Farms shut down, if the people of South Carolina boycotted Frito-Lay products, they'd shut that damn farm down in a heartbeat," said concerned citizen Paul Pridget about Walther Farms, a potato provider of Frito-Lay.
Walther Farms is already registered with DHEC to pump 6 billion gallons of water each year from the river. DHEC is currently considering another application by the farm to pump around 3 billion more gallons each year at another site further downstream.
On Tuesday night, around 350 packed into the Aiken Electric Cooperative community room on Wagener Road. It was likely the largest crowd the venue has ever seen.
"Oh, I expected a standing-room-only crowd, and that's what we got," says Representative Bill Taylor of Aiken, who represents the area where the potato farm is being built.
DHEC says the farm's plan to withdraw water is legal. DHEC told the crowd, under a current state law, the South Carolina Surface Water Withdrawal, Permitting Use, And Reporting Act of 2010, a farmer can withdraw massive amounts of water from rivers without telling the public, as long as they pump within what DHEC calls a "safe yield." Other factors aren't taken into account.
"The agricultural community basically won an exemption," says Taylor, who wasn't a lawmaker when the water bill was passed. "They lobbied hard to exempt the farms and agriculture from this bill. Well, this is the result of that now."
A DHEC analysis on the proposed water withdrawal says taking roughly 27 million gallons of water each day will have a "minimal near-field and far-field impact on the safe yield of the Edisto River Basin."
However, many at the meeting argued the river will run dry, especially during dry summer months. DHEC's river flow data is taken from a sampling site in Denmark, which many say doesn't reflect the portion of river that runs through Aiken County.
Ultimately, DHEC told hostile citizens that the agency's hands are tied and deflected blame to lawmakers like Taylor.
"It's clear we need revisions in the river law," he says. "These are unintended consequences. I'm sure the people that were there over the eight years in the legislatures and the lobbyists did their best work, but now we find that we have a gaping hole in this law."
Taylor won't say if he'll file legislation to fix the problem, but he says this is an issue that's not going away.
As News 12 reported first last night, Taylor says the farm is possibly agreeable to installing a water meter, to monitor levels, closer to where it'll be pumping out gallon after gallon.
Senator Tom Young of Aiken also says something needs to be done, and he says he's already talked to several other lawmakers. He says it won't happen overnight, but it's definitely something he says needs to be fixed.
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