Safe drinking water concerns spur EPA action in small SC town

sfretwell@thestate.comSeptember 10, 2013 

high key drops

— A small eastern South Carolina town with a history of problems operating a safe drinking water system will give up control of the system in an attempt to resolve long-standing violations of federal and state law, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Under a settlement agreement announced Tuesday, Timmonsville will transfer ownership of its water and sewer systems to nearby Florence, a city of 38,000 that is more than 10 times larger than Timmonsville.

Timmonsville residents approved a referendum in June to give the water and sewer systems to Florence. Under the consent decree, Florence must make improvements to the Timmonsville water and sewer systems. Long-term improvements are projected to cost $12 million.

Federal officials said Timmonsville, with 3,200 residents, never had the money to make upgrades — but that didn’t reduce the threat to people or the surrounding environment.

“The inadequacy of Timmonsville’s drinking water and sewer systems have posed a threat to public health and the environment,” said Stan Meiburg, acting regional administrator for the EPA in the Southeast. “The transfer to Florence and the improvements required under the consent decree will result in tremendous benefits to the surrounding rural community and the Sparrow Swamp/Lynches River watershed.”

U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles said the settlement will produce “a good result for South Carolinians.’’

The federal government, which sued Timmonsville earlier this summer, had accused the town of not putting enough chlorine into its drinking water. People can get sick from bacteria that otherwise would have been killed off by chlorine, the EPA said.

Timmonsville also had problems with its sewer system. A collapsed sewer line downtown caused untreated sewage to back up into several buildings and has eroded some streets, the federal lawsuit said. The town improperly discharged more than 2 million gallons of wastewater into nearby waterways, the suit said.

The EPA and U.S. Attorney’s office announcement came the same day the federal agencies formally announced a settlement with the city of Columbia over a legacy of sewer system problems. The settlement was released last month by the city. The city, which has the state’s largest wastewater treatment plant, has agreed to make $750 million in improvements to the sewer system.

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