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Pair could be in deep trouble over salvage of waterlogged timber in Savannah River

Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 2:18 PM EDT
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AIKEN, S.C. (WRDW/WAGT) - Two South Carolina men made the Aiken County jail log for something you might not expect.

They were on a quest for timber that’s been sitting on the bottom of the Savannah River for more than 100 years, according to authorities.

And that’s against the law if you don’t have permission to do it.

Countless logs fell off barges or sank while being floated downriver during logging operations in the 1800s. To this day, many remain at the bottom of waterways across the region.

They’ve survived the years better than you might think: Deep under the river surface, there’s no oxygen, so there’s virtually no decay.

Minerals in the water give unique textures and colors to the wood, which is turned into high-end furniture and art.

That’s spawned a small industry of people who salvage the timber.

“It can be quite lucrative,” South Carolina Department of Natural Resources spokesman David Lucas told News 12.

In the Palmetto State, the logs are considered archaeological artifacts, so it’s illegal to salvage them without a permit.

But that’s what Nathan L. Tarpein Sr., 41, of Summerville, and Nicholas R. Fox, 24, of Ravenel, had been up to before they were arrested Tuesday in Aiken County, according to Lucas.

He said his agency had encountered them before and warned them to get a license, which can cost $500 per location for state residents or $1,000 for out-of-state residents.

For whatever reason, Lucas said, they didn’t get a license.

So when they were caught doing it again, the Department of Natural Resources decided to pursue charges under the South Carolina Underwater Antiquities Act.

“It’s a little unusual for us,” Lucas said of the agency that most often deals with hunting and fishing matters.

The law says the state owns all submerged archaeological historic items that have remained unclaimed for at least 50 years on submerged lands controlled by the state. The law doesn’t apply to private property.

A commercial license is not required for inspecting, studying, exploring or taking photos. But salvaging is different.

The logs are considered artifacts because they were cut and bear saw marks, as opposed to logs from trees that may have fallen naturally and ended up in the river, Lucas said.

Also requiring a license — for as little as $5 — is hobby diving for paleontological resources.

Lucas said such discoveries include fossilized shark teeth.

As to whether the law has any teeth, the misdemeanor of violating the hobby license category can bring a penalty as low as a $50 fine. But commercial violators face a fine up to $10,000 and can spend a year in prison.

From left: Nathan L. Tarpein Sr. and Nicholas R. Fox
From left: Nathan L. Tarpein Sr. and Nicholas R. Fox(WRDW)

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