Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2013
AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW) -- To say there was standing room only, doesn't quite describe it. 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.
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.
The Edisto River, which runs from Saluda and Edgefield Counties to the coast, is considered the longest free-flowing blackwater river in North America. Walther Farms, a potato farmer headquartered in Michigan, could soon pump around 27 million gallons from the small, shallow river each day.
At Tuesday's meeting, neither DHEC nor Walther Farms were spared from brutal comments from members of the public.
"Y'all are shameful!" shouted one man to the DHEC workers. He then added that DHEC is allowing the Edisto River to be destroyed.
However, 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."
Throughout the evening, DHEC placed some amount of blame on state lawmakers.
A 2010 state law, meant to protect large withdrawals of water from rivers, gave a big exemption to farmers. The law says if a farmer wants to withdraw more than 300 million gallons from a river each month, a public notice period or public hearing isn't necessary.
Jim Beasley, a spokesman for DHEC, says his agency can only do what the law instructs it to do.
Half-a-dozen members of the General Assembly were in attendance. Representative Bill Taylor, who represents the area where the potato farm is being installed, told the crowd that after recent talks with Walther Farms, he believes the farm would possibly pay to install a water meter to more closely monitor flow rates near the intake pump.
While some, including DHEC, appeared supportive of the measure, some said it doesn't go far enough in regulating Walther Farms, a supplier of potatoes for Frito-Lay.
"Going to the Statehouse is not going to do it. Going to DHEC is not going to do it. 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 Paul Pridgen of Irmo, S.C.
News 12 has reached out to Walther Farms for comment multiple times but has yet to hear back. News 12 was also told that owners of the farm weren't in attendance Tuesday night.
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