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A ‘damming’ situation: 130-year-old dam leaking; holding back tons of toxic waste from river

By Peyton Furtado

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    GREENVILLE, South Carolina (WYFF) — Lake Greenwood provides clean drinking water to tens of thousands of people in Greenwood and Laurens counties. But just over an hour upstream in Greenville County, the 130-year-old Conestee Dam is crumbling and cracking day by day, according to experts, holding back millions of tons of chemicals and raw sewage.

“We’re worried. That old dam is pretty tedious,” said Greenville County Councilman Butch Kirven. “You know that the rainfall we had this past week was almost-record levels. And there’s some cracks in the dam now between those old stones that were set into place.”

The dam was built in 1892 to power the Conestee Mill, which went out of business in the 1970s.

During that time, before environmental ordinances were put into place, the mills and businesses along the river dumped their toxic waste and sewage into the water.

Now, lawmakers say that the dam is leaking.

Though Kirven and other lawmakers said some have known about the problem for a few years, they’ve never gotten this close to addressing it.

“With those companies gone, why is it my problem? They should fix that over there,” Kirven said, explaining the mindset. “Those people should fix this. Why doesn’t Greenville City fix it? Why doesn’t Greenville County fix it? Well, nobody like that has got $47.5 million.”

According to a study led by Kleinschmidt Consulting, dams built in the Upstate during the late 19th century were typically only meant to last 50 years.

One hundred and thirty years later, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control said the state of the dam and the presence of metals, pesticides and other chemicals encased in sediment at the bottom of the water it holds back is hazardous.

Kirven said he can’t fathom how much damage it could do if breached.

“You can’t put a price on lives and health,” he said. “Property damage would be in the billions of dollars, no doubt about that.”

The pollution pouring into the Reedy River and flowing into Lake Greenwood, a source of drinking water for Laurens County and Greenwood County’s only drinking was source.

“We’ll either be taking showers in bottled water or take turns sticking our fingers in the dam, so the water doesn’t leak out and get us,” said Greenwood Lake resident Bradley Wooten.

“If the dam breaks,” he continued, “this lake, the ecology, the water supply and pretty much everything downstream from the lake, Columbia and Lake Murray and beyond will be affected.”

After state lawmakers set aside $3 million in 2022 to address Conestee Dam, DHEC recommended building a new dam about 10 feet in front of the old one. It should take three years to build.

Before they break ground, representatives on the local and state level will need to come up with at least $47.5 million.

According to Greenwood County Council member Dayne Pruitt, it could put people in a difficult quandary.

“If you look at responsible parties, which most are not in business anymore,” he said. “And you’ve got us downstream that it affects, but if we ask our taxpayers to pay for something that we didn’t cause, can we ask the state? We need help. We need help from state, we need help from federal, if it’s possible.”

We reached out to the Conestee Foundation, which owns the Conestee Dam and Conestee Nature Preserve behind it. The nonprofit responded that they are considered a non-responsible party.

Executive director Michael Corley stated, “This is something that we’re diligently working on and have been for decades. We’re closer than ever to solving the problems.”

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