When the rain kept coming down in torrents and sewage systems in the Midlands began to overflow after Tropical Storm Ida, utility managers quickly notified the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
DHEC staffers, called in to work on their Veterans Day holiday, examined the spills and notified the public by mid-afternoon. Signs warning against any type of recreation in the water were posted at eight sites near the spills before the end of the day.
That quick action was in stark contrast to the delay in telling the public about a major spill at Alpine Utilities on the Saluda River 15 months earlier.
Those involved credit the quicker reaction to changes in DHEC's attitude and increased awareness about the need for timely public notice.
"I give compliments to DHEC," said Gerrit Jobsis, Southeast regional director for American Rivers. "I got an e-mail quickly, and they were fast on the scene."
"DHEC did an awesome job of hunting people down on a national holiday and getting their Web-based notification system going," said Charlene Coleman, a local kayaker and a regional coordinator for the recreation group American Whitewater.
Instead of pointing the finger at DHEC this time, Coleman puts part of the blame for the mid-November sewage spill on the public for putting so much trash into storm-water drainage systems, which contributed to the problem. She also blames Columbia City Council for not putting more of its water system profits into repairing that system.
As for the sewage plant operators and DHEC, Coleman thinks they did their job well.
Some local kayakers, Coleman included, still took advantage of the high water levels to paddle in the Saluda River over the Nov. 14-15 weekend, but, at least, they knew what they were getting into this time.
In the summer of 2008, when partially treated sewage leaked from the Alpine plant, managers of the plant didn't report the problem until three days after it started. DHEC didn't alert the public for nearly a week because the agency thought the problem had been fixed.
Many of the folks blasting DHEC then are praising the agency now.
"I think part of the improvement is DHEC recognizing they weren't responsive enough last time," Jobsis said.
Agency officials acknowledge the Alpine spill had an impact.
"It certainly made us more aware that we need to do as much as we can to notify people of a problem," said DHEC spokesman Thom Berry.
"We have recommended to the utilities that they institute a public notification system. And we told them, 'If you don't do it, we will.'"
DHEC had changed its rules about notifying the public about spills before the Alpine event, asking utilities to go public. But Alpine didn't realize its equipment had failed.
Earlier this month, the cities of Cayce, Chapin and Columbia and several private utilities knew they were overwhelmed when runoff from nearly four inches of rain from Tropical Storm Ida found its way into sewer systems. They followed the public notification protocol by first calling DHEC.
A DHEC staffer who had the day off got the first call on a personal cell phone about 9 a.m. Several state workers were called in to check out the plants. They called in others to begin the notification process, Berry said. Shortly before 3 p.m., a news release was on the DHEC Web site and in e-mail boxes of members of the media and interested groups.
A bill that passed the S.C. House this year could make such a quick response the legal requirement. The bill threatens utilities with fines if they fail to notify the public of any spill of more than 5,000 gallons quickly - within 12 hours. The bill has not been considered in the Senate.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, filed the bill after a sewage spill in his district went unreported over a four-day holiday weekend. He wants quick public notification by the utilities to be mandatory, not voluntary.
"I don't want to take credit where it's not warranted, but I think us pursuing this bill brought an awareness that things needed to change," Pitts said.