Major rate hike for some SC water, sewer customers possible next year

Blue Granite Water Company, the private water and sewer company that serves 30,000 customers in South Carolina, is looking to increase customer’s rates by up to 56%, according to legal filings from October.

That means Blue Granite’s rates for the average water customer would go up by 45%, while sewer rates would increase by 56%, according to the state Office of Regulatory Staff, a government watchdog that advocates for customers. The Public Service Commission will take up the request in the spring.

A Midlands customer’s water bill would increase by about $25-35 per month, while the average sewer bill would go up by $26-36 per month, according to Regulatory Staff estimates.

“It’s a substantial increase for those customers who just had an increase not very long ago,” said Ron Aiken, a spokesperson for Regulatory Staff.

Blue Granite, formerly Carolina Water Service, serves dozens of neighborhoods in Richland and Lexington counties.

The rate increase is sure to upset some customers, who through the years, have complained of spotty service and what they call expensive rates. The proposed rate increase is also coming at a time when the company is still having trouble following environmental laws. Blue Granite was recently fined thousands by the Department of Health and Environmental Control for improperly getting rid of waste.

Rates for the company’s Midlands customers could go up by up to 55.4% for water service. In parts of the Midlands where Blue Granite buys water wholesale from another supplier — such as the city of Columbia — rates could go up by up to 53.6%, according to Regulatory Staff. Rates and the proposed increases vary based on which service area customers live in.

Blue Granite also serves customers in the Rock Hill area and other parts of the Upstate, where rates will be similarly affected.

Sewer rates would likewise increase by up to 55.7%, as would base facilities charges, the fixed amount customers pay each month. And while the charge for Blue Granite’s service as a water distributor could go down for some customers, those same ratepayers would be charged an extra fee, a “purchased water charge,” which could change annually.

The PSC last allowed Blue Granite, the former Carolina Water Service, to increase customer’s bills in 2018.

Since then, the company has spent $23 million on making its South Carolina water and sewer systems more efficient, according to a statement from Blue Granite. This is part of the reason why the company is requesting more revenue — to recoup the costs of those projects, which benefit customers.

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Among the improvements were cleaning up the Friarsgate treatment facility in Irmo and connecting it to the city of Columbia to stop wastewater from seeping into the Saluda River, according to a statement from Blue Granite. The company also updated 22,000 linear feet of wastewater-transporting pipes in the Midlands and upgraded the Forty Love Point wastewater system in Chapin, the release said.

“Each of these projects has helped Blue Granite meet its obligation to provide safe and reliable water and wastewater service to its customers across South Carolina,” the statement said.

The company also wants to increase customers’ bills incrementally each year as the cost of services it purchases from third-party vendors goes up. The utility industry as a whole is moving toward making small annual rate changes instead of big jumps every few years, according to Blue Granite spokesperson Dave Wilson. The PSC would have to allow Blue Granite to add annual rate hikes.

Consumer advocates argue that the rates customers pay is “enough to have the utility stay in compliance with the law,” according to Dawn Hipp, chief operating officer of Regulatory Staff.

The Regulatory Staff is tasked with combing through Blue Granite’s application, fact-checking figures and making customer-minded recommendations to the PSC.

Blue Granite is also asking the PSC to increase its profits from construction projects. Right now, the company earns 10.5 cents on every dollar it spends on improvement projects. It is asking the PSC for profits of 10.7%. That request comes two years after Regulatory Staff fought for a smaller amount — 9%. In that case, the PSC sided with Blue Granite in approving the 10.5% profit rate it now has.

In total, Blue Granite is seeking $11.7 million in added revenue to cover, among other things, its legal expenses and the creation of a storm reserve fund.

Blue Granite has long fought with various regulatory agencies over its rate hikes and history of skirting environmental regulations. The small water systems the company runs in rural parts of the state often lack basics. It has been cited for bad drinking water and it has been fined millions of dollars for polluting waterways.

The company was fined $8,225 by DHEC in September for “failing to properly dispose of sludge” from its Watergate wastewater treatment facility in Lexington County. Between 1993 to 2013, enforcement actions against Carolina Water Service and related companies dwarfed those against any other company or government agency in South Carolina.

In an effort to ameliorate its public image, Carolina Water Service changed its name to Blue Granite, began apologizing for sewage leaks into waterways, started interconnecting rundown facilities and hired a new president: former DHEC chief Catherine Heigel.

Before the PSC makes a final decision on the latest rate increase request, customers, homeowners associations, legislators and others will have a chance to comment. Dec. 9 is the deadline for interested groups to request hearings with the commission.

Blue Granite systems in the Midlands

Lexington County

Water: Arrowhead/Lakewood Estates, Bellemede, Blue Ridge/Calvin/Heatherwood, Calvin Acres, Cambridge Hills, Charwood, Dutchman Acres, Dutchman Shores, Emma Terrace, Estates at Hilton, Falcon Ranches, Foxtrail, Glenn Village, Heatherwood, Hermitage, Hidden Valley Country Club, Hilton Place, Idlewood CWS, Indian Cove, Indian Pines, Lake Village, Lakewood Estates, Lexington Estates, Lexington Farms, Milmont Shores, Murray Lodge, Murray Park Estates, Oakwood, Parkwood, Peachtree Acres, Sangaree, Southland Cedarwood, Southland Creekwood, Sycamore Acres, Tanya Terrace, Vanarsdale, Westside Terrace, Windy Hill.

Sewer: Brighton Forest, Glenn Village II/Stonebridge, Golden Pond, Greyland Forest/Woodcastle, Harbor Place/Windward Pointe, Harborside, Hidden Valley MHP, Indian Fork/Forty Love, Laurel Meadows/Savannah Point, Mallard Cove, Oak Grove Estates, Planters Station, Rollingwood, Smallwood Estates, Spring Lake/Dutchwood, Springhill/Oakcreat, The Landings, Watergate/Spence Pt.

Water and sewer: Governors Grant, Kingston Harbour, Secret Cove, Woodsen.

Richland County

Water: Charleswood, Dutch Village/Raintree Acres, Farrowood Estates, Hamon Hill Estates, Oakridge Hunt Club, Raintree Acres, Springfield Acres, Washington Heights.

Sewer: Forty Love Point, Stonegate/Forty Love Point.

Water and sewer: Ballentine Cove, Friarsgate/Ballentine Cove, North Lake Shore Point, Salem Church Rd., Shadowwood Cove.

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Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.