Leaders of a tiny, cash-strapped town are fighting a sewage-dumping plan - approved by South Carolina's environmental protection agency - that they say could pollute their drinking water and disrupt their quiet community.
McBee officials have appealed state permission for a utility to discharge treated wastewater on about five acres of an 800-acre old peach orchard near the town, about an hour northeast of Columbia.
The board of the Department of Health and Environmental Control will decide this morning whether to hear McBee's appeal of the permit issued by DHEC's staff. If the board agrees to consider the appeal, a hearing would be held early next year.
"What is going to happen if this gets into our aquifer?" asked Mayor John Campolong. "I don't think (DHEC) has properly assessed this."
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Sewer discharges would flow onto land in an area that relies on wells for drinking water. The discharges would be about a mile from the town limits and could reach as much as 800,000 gallons per day, records show.
DHEC staff members say the treated discharges won't hurt drinking water.
Many of the state's sewer plants, including those in Columbia and Cayce, release treated wastewater to rivers. But because of limited capacity for rivers to accept wastewater, utilities in parts of the state sometimes seek to release treated sewage onto land. Wastewater discharges, while treated, typically smell bad and contain bacteria associated with human sewage.
McBee, a town of 714 people, is best known for fruit orchards and as a stopping point between Charlotte and Myrtle Beach. It has two full-time employees and an annual budget well under $1 million. The town, which is near the Chesterfield-Kershaw counties line, has a small groundwater-fed drinking water system.
Despite McBee's small size and limited resources to fight, Campolong and Councilman Kemp McLeod said they believe it is important to challenge the DHEC staff's decision to approve the Alligator Rural Water & Sewer Co.'s sewer discharges.
"We're kind of being runover as a small town," McLeod said.
Town officials say DHEC hasn't answered many basic questions about the discharges, including how contamination would be cleaned up if the groundwater becomes polluted. They say DHEC should require Alligator Rural Water to post a bond for any cleanup that might be needed.
The amount of discharges allowed would be far more than needed in the area, making McBee an attractive site for other utilities - including those from North Carolina - to truck or pipe in their wastewater, town officials contend.
Attempts to reach company manager Glenn Odom were unsuccessful Wednesday. Alligator serves parts of Chesterfield County around McBee.
DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said agency staffers don't think Alligator's discharge plan will pollute groundwater.
The company plans to release treated wastewater from a sewer plant into a series of basins that then would let the water trickle slowly into the ground.
"We would not have issued the permit if we thought there was a potential for any kind of problems," Myrick said.
The dispute in McBee isn't the first between the town and the water company. They are at odds over water rates the company charges customers.
Campolong, who has run a business in McBee for 48 years, said Alligator is trying to expand rapidly and is aggressively courting other communities to provide sewer. That could attract industry and jobs, but Campolong and McLeod said it's not worthwhile if it makes McBee a nasty sewer disposal ground.
DHEC officials say in public documents that Alligator Rural Water does not now have the agency's permission to bring in customers from other states for its sewer plant.
But Campolong and McLeod fear the disposal site eventually could become a regional sewer discharge area, just as a mega-landfill in Lee County accepts trash for the East Coast.
"We really do need sewer in the area, but we hate that it is being land-applied and that it is so close," McLeod said. "I don't know why there's such a rush."