When the small plane he was riding in flew over a closed textile factory several months ago, Bill Stangler saw two slime-covered waste lagoons on the edge of the Broad River north of Columbia.
The proximity of the factory’s lagoons to the river worried him. Stangler, the riverkeeper for the Broad, knew the basins were in an area where high levels of hazardous chemicals had been found in groundwater, sewer sludge and wastewater.
He also knew the river and one of the state’s largest drinking water plants – 65 miles south in Columbia – have shown the same types of chemicals at levels above a proposed federal safe drinking water limit. The site of the lagoons reinforced his concerns that leaks from the plant were perilously close to the river and threatening Columbia’s canal drinking water.
The questions now are whether chemicals from Carlisle Finishing caused the contamination downriver and what can be done to reduce the threat of the toxic pollutants, known as per and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in Columbia.
“That site is a potential source of PFAS for the Broad River and certainly PFAS that could be found downstream in Columbia’s drinking water,’’ Stangler said. “This is a potential ticking time bomb of pollution that sits less than 100 feet from the Broad River.’’
At Carlisle Finishing, forever chemical pollution is up to 7,200 times higher in groundwater than the proposed federal standard of four parts per trillion, state data show. Tests show sludge from waste basins has forever chemical levels up to 80 times higher than the proposed federal limit.
Levels recorded in the river and Columbia’s drinking water plant are substantially lower, but they still exceed the proposed limit for the two most common types of PFAS.
Clint Shealy, Columbia’s assistant city manager over utilities, said he wants to know whether the city or state can stop future threats and any existing leaks that are contaminating the river at the Carlisle plant.
Not only does Columbia want to limit forever chemicals in drinking water for safety reasons, but stopping them could save the city hundreds of millions of dollars. Columbia faces the prospect of spending more than $150 million for a filtering system to comply with the federal drinking water limit for PFAS if it can’t keep the pollutants out of its water, Shealy has said.
Because PFAS levels aren’t substantially above the proposed limit at the canal plant — they are less than 10 parts per trillion — any reduction in the chemicals in the Broad River could help bring the city into compliance without costly upgrades to its water system, Shealy said.
“The first logical step is to stop putting this stuff in the environment,’’ Shealy said. “Then, let’s see if our PFAS levels start decreasing. It might bring you below that limit and save customers a whole lot of money.’’
PFAS, a class of thousands of compounds, is commonly called forever chemicals because the materials do not break down easily in the environment. Used since the 1940s, the chemicals were vital ingredients in waterproof clothing, stain resistant carpet and firefighting foam.
But they have increasingly been found to be toxic. Exposure has been linked to kidney, testicular and breast cancer, ulcerative colitis and thyroid problems. Forever chemicals also can weaken a person’s immune system and cause developmental delays in children. PFAS manufacturers have been accused of hiding the dangers for decades.
In this case, it’s possible that even if forever chemical pollution can be reduced and cleaned up at Carlisle Finishing, the damage may have been done years ago.
Stangler said it would not be surprising if Carlisle Finishing released the chemicals for years, long before the public knew about the dangers. The company ran a treatment plant for wastewater it generated at the textile factory, but wastewater systems are not required to filter out forever chemicals before releasing wastewater into a river. Only certain pollutants are required to be treated.
For now, state regulators say they are trying to learn more about the problem at Carlisle. The 68-year-old textile plant, which closed about three years ago, is under scrutiny by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for the pollution found on the sprawling site between Columbia and Spartanburg.
In April, DHEC sent factory representatives a letter calling the environmental problems at Carlisle Finishing “an urgent legal matter.’’ The letter said Elevate Textiles, a one-time owner, is potentially liable to clean up the mess at the Carlisle plant. In addition to forever chemicals in groundwater, DHEC also has found the presence of volatile organic compounds, the agency said. These types of materials include solvents and chlorination byproducts.
“Because the site poses a hazard to human health and the environment, the department recommends that you give this matter your immediate attention,’’ the April letter from DHEC’s Gary Stewart to Elevate Textiles said.
Consultants have submitted a cleanup plan that appears promising, but DHEC needs to push for a resolution as soon as possible to stop the threat, said Stangler and Carl Brzorad, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
The plan says filter systems will be installed to remove PFAS from wastewater before it is released to the Broad River.
Sludge from waste basins also will be disposed of in a lined landfill on the property, according to the April 2023 plan. Sludge from Carlisle Finishing contained forever chemicals, although DHEC did not provide the levels.
In the past, the Carlisle plant distributed sludge to area farmers for use as fertilizer. All told, DHEC had given approval to spread the plant’s waste on more than 80 farm fields that included parts of small communities like Buffalo, Whitmire and Carlisle, state records show.
Tests last year found some wells near sludge fields contained levels of PFAS that would exceed the proposed federal drinking water standard, agency records show. One of those wells showed levels of one type of PFAS was 11 times higher than the proposed limit. DHEC recorded the high level in 2022, before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended the four parts per trillion standard this past spring. All told, the well registered six different types of PFAS.
DHEC has identified sewer sludge as a major potential source of PFAS pollution in rivers and groundwater. Statewide, the agency has approved about 3,500 farm fields as sites for sewer sludge, including areas of eastern South Carolina where wells are polluted with forever chemicals, The State and McClatchy reported in a recent investigative series.
In a brief email to The State, an Elevate Textiles official said the company is working to address “any outstanding issues regarding wastewater processing at the site.’’
The email said the company tries to follow environmental rules and “to employ best industry practices.’’ The official also noted that Elevate Textiles no longer owns the Carlisle Finishing property.
Union County property records show the land, which is more than 700 acres, is owned by two companies with a Monroe, N.C. address: Carlisle WW Holdings LLC and Carlisle Partners LLC. Efforts to reach a representative of the companies were not immediately successful.
The Carlisle Finishing factory was once part of Cone Mills, a national denim and textile manufacturer in North Carolina. The company launched operations in 1955 and became a pillar of the community in tiny Union County. At one point, it had more than 1,100 workers and was the largest employer in the county.
Through the years, the company’s executives won awards from the local chamber of commerce, and Carlisle Finishing was even at one point included on a tour for people interested in the history of Union County.
The plant was sold after Cone Mills declared bankruptcy in 2003, making room for Elevate Textiles to acquire the company. The Carlisle site, while popular among local citizens, isn’t without blemishes. DHEC has made at least eight enforcement cases against Carlisle since 2006 for violations of environmental laws, records show.
McClatchy data journalist Susan Merriam contributed to this story.
This story was originally published July 28, 2023, 10:29 AM.
Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment beat for The State since 1995. He writes about an array of issues, including wildlife, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. He has won numerous awards, including Journalist of the Year by the S.C. Press Association in 2017. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.