Sheheen: SC must fight beach bacterial pollution

sfretwell@thestate.comJuly 16, 2014 

Democratic candidate for governor Vincent Sheheen called Wednesday for the state to spend millions to remove bacteria-filled stormwater pipes from the beaches that anchor South Carolina’s tourism economy.

In the Myrtle Beach area on a campaign stop, Sheheen said he favors spending $10 million to $20 million in state money to get rid of pipes along the Grand Strand so that vacationers aren’t exposed to contaminated runoff.

If elected governor, Sheheen said he will make removing the drainage pipes and improving water quality in the Myrtle Beach area a priority.

The seaside pipes release water that runs off streets and rooftops after heavy rains. The drainage forms bacteria-laden pools and rivulets on the beach, which often attract children as the water washes into the ocean. Exposure to the polluted water can sicken people.

Drainage on the beach is a key reason Horry County’s seashore typically has the worst ocean-water quality among South Carolina’s coastal resort areas.

Sheheen, a state senator from Camden, criticized Republican Gov. Nikki Haley of Lexington for not helping Grand Strand cities tackle the issue. His call to remove oceanfront drainage pipes is thought to be the first by a candidate for governor in South Carolina.

“Local municipalities have invested tens of millions of dollars on some of the outflows to clean them up, but the state under Gov. Haley has not done anything to help,’’ Sheheen said in an interview with The State newspaper. “We will help to lead the charge to work cooperatively with the local community to take those same steps with the remaining outfalls.’’

Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Haley, characterized Sheheen’s remarks as election-year grandstanding.

“Promising earmarks to local communities isn’t leadership, it’s electioneering,’’ Mayer said in an email.

“No one has supported keeping South Carolina beautiful and our beaches clean more than Gov. Haley, and this administration is committed to protecting the economic engine that tourism is to our state. When community officials that actually represent the Grand Strand come up with a proposal, the governor will be happy to consider it along with all other statewide needs, which is how responsible budgets are written.”

Local tax issue thus far

Some state money has been spent helping with the stormwater removal effort, now spearheaded by Grand Strand cities. But officials on the coast said the amount has been tiny.

North Myrtle Beach has received $1.8 million in state money for drainage-pipe removal during the past two years, city officials said. Myrtle Beach city officials said they had received money through the state’s revolving-loan program that must be repaid.

Instead, most of the projects’ costs have been paid by local taxes and fees levied by Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach. Those two cities have spent about $35 million in the past two decades to remove pipes and route the drainage offshore, city officials said Wednesday.

Grand Strand officials said they could use help getting rid of the pipes — at one time there were 150 — that historically have lined the beaches. Without added help, removing the approximately 100 remaining pipes could take two decades or more because of a lack of money, city officials said Wednesday.

Sheheen told The State that he supports using “one-time money,’’ typically surplus revenues that often occur annually in South Carolina’s state budget, for drainage pipe removal.

Sheheen said $10 million to $20 million would help for one year, but he acknowledged the expense could be higher. For that reason, Sheheen said he could support adding additional years to help pay for the drainage pipe removal effort in Horry County.

Environment an issue?

Haley and Sheheen will face each other in November’s general election in a rematch of their 2010 contest, which Haley won by 4.5 percentage points. (Three other candidates also will be on the November ballot.)

In 2010, Haley routed Sheheen — by more than 20 percentage points — in Horry County, where the Republican enjoys strong support. But Sheheen’s efforts could resonate with voters who don’t live in Horry County and vacation on its beaches.

The Democrat’s statements Wednesday are among recent efforts to showcase the need for protecting the environment. Haley has been criticized by conservation groups for failing to address environmental issues.

Sheheen said spending state money to get rid of drainage pipes on the beach is worthwhile because Myrtle Beach is a state resource that many people across South Carolina — and the nation — visit.

“That is the appropriate use of that one-time infrastructure money in the state budget every year,’’ he said. “We ought to make it a priority.’’

Sheheen said he also would be a champion of seeking federal money to help with the drainage pipe removal effort. The Kershaw County attorney said he has warned his own children away from drainage pipes, and the pools that form beneath them, while visiting Myrtle Beach on vacation.

“I’ve been right there in those outflows with my kids, telling them to ‘Move on. You don’t want to play in that water that looks like a nice little tide pool,’ ’’ he said.

Issue since ’70s

Ocean water quality and polluted runoff have been issues in the Myrtle Beach area since the 1970s. In the late 1990s, after The State newspaper wrote articles detailing surf pollution near drainage pipes, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control began testing the ocean for pollution.

Data since have shown bacteria levels rise to unsafe levels in many spots after heavy rains. Many of the problem areas are in some of the most crowded sections of Myrtle Beach, the cornerstone of South Carolina’s $17 billion tourism economy.

At one time, DHEC warned people through the media not to swim after water tests showed high bacteria counts. However, in recent years, the agency has started relying on permanent signs at drainage pipes and inlets to get the word out from near North Myrtle Beach through Surfside Beach. Sheheen said DHEC should do more to warn of the threat when bacteria levels are unsafe in the ocean.

Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group, ranked S.C. beaches as seventh worst in the country in water quality, mostly because of problems in the Myrtle Beach area. The group’s annual report often has taken Myrtle Beach to task.

‘These are state beaches’

Grand Strand officials, while reluctant Wednesday to weigh in on the governor’s race, said they like and support Sheheen’s idea of state help.

“This is excellent,’’ North Myrtle Beach mayor Marilyn Hatley said. “These are state beaches.

“Drainage that filters out on the beaches is going through pipes that are open, where there is dirty water with bacteria in it. That sometimes closes our beaches down during hard rains. That is not a good advertisement for our community.’’

Myrtle Beach city spokesman Mark Kruea said City Council “would be very receptive to the idea. We’ve spent a great deal of money addressing storm water and would welcome assistance from the state.’’

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