News | November 12, 2019

Google permit to triple its freshwater use upsets S.C. neighbors

A request from internet giant Google to siphon up to 1.5 million gallons of water per day from a Berkeley County aquifer that provides drinking water has upset neighbors and lawmakers who are urging South Carolina officials to reconsider the permit.

That amount is three times what Google had been permitted to take from the aquifer in the area that serves Mount Pleasant customers. At the same time, state regulators have told the Mount Pleasant water utility to cut its recent request for groundwater from the aquifer by 57 percent.

SELC and the Coastal Conservation League are asking the board of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, or DHEC, to reconsider the withdrawal permit. In October, DHEC staff approved the Google permit, even though a technical advisory committee rejected the request.

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The aquifer Google wants to further tap, known as the Middendorf Aquifer, is already under stress. Each year, users take out more water than is naturally replenished. Google says it needs more aquifer water to cool computers at an expansion of its Berkeley County server farm. In other places where aquifer withdrawals are limited, companies will rely on municipal water for cooling.

Complicating the request is Google’s secrecy, according to Catherine Wannamaker, an SELC senior attorney.

Google considers its full water use a “trade secret” and has an agreement with Berkeley County not to release that information. When Berkeley County recently disclosed a years-old snapshot of Google water consumption, the tech company threatened to sue if that information was made public.

“Google and state regulators are saying this is a reasonable request but, with the secrets Google is claiming and the information it is withholding, it is hard for anyone to see whether it really is reasonable,” she said. “We know Mount Pleasant Waterworks had its recent request cut while Google’s massive increase was approved. As someone who lives in Mount Pleasant, it seems only right to put citizens before search engines.”