The clamor continues to grow in McBee over a proposed $12 million sewer plant that many hope will bring prosperity to the tiny crossroads.
The Nestle company has identified the McBee area as a possible location for a new bottled water plant. But for Nestle to locate in McBee, industrial recruiters say, the community needs sewer service.
And that's where tensions are rising.
Mayor John Campolong and the McBee Town Council are fighting the plant, saying it will pollute the very water Nestle wants to bottle and sell - a charge plant supporters say is hogwash.
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Campolong's group says the sewer plant, proposed by a local utility, also threatens to pollute local water supplies and taint the air with powerful odors. The major concern is a plan to discharge wastewater into a field, rather than a creek.
Next month, the McBee Town Council takes its fight to the S.C. Department of Health Control board. The board has agreed to decide whether to uphold or overturn a staff-issued permit that allows the plant to discharge treated wastewater onto undeveloped land near the edge of town.
McBee's appeal could determine whether McBee grows the way industrial leaders want or stays the sleepy crossroads that many others are comfortable with.
"People who have an interest in the town and have been in the town for years are very concerned about this," Campolong said.
McBee, about 60 miles northeast of Columbia, is perhaps best known as a stopover between Charlotte and Myrtle Beach. At the intersection of U.S. 1 and S.C. 151, McBee has several small industrial plants, a handful of convenience stores, 714 residents - and a reputation as a speed trap.
Sometimes a source of complaints for aggressive traffic enforcement, McBee was at the center of a state investigation several years ago over corruption charges involving the police department. Ultimately, the police chief and town judge pleaded guilty to charges resulting from the probe.
The latest dispute has gotten so hot that several heavy hitters have stepped in.
A McBee Town Council member who opposes discharging wastewater into the field has brought in former DHEC commissioner Doug Bryant to fight the proposal. Bryant, DHEC's top official from 1993 to 2001, is now a consultant. He says the plant might be suitable if wastewater is discharged into a creek, instead of onto land, as proposed.
Meanwhile, the Alligator Rural Water and Sewer Co., which wants to build the plant, has contracted with successful Columbia attorney Tommy Lavender. He works for the well-known Nexsen Pruet law firm and is an expert on arguing cases before the DHEC board. The company also has hired Chris Drummond, a former spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, to help with public relations.
Glenn Odom, who manages Alligator Rural Water and Sewer, said his company's push for the plant will benefit McBee and surrounding Chesterfield County by making the area attractive for new industry. Odom is a former mayor of McBee.
"Industry is not going to look at an area that does not have sufficient wastewater treatment," Odom said, noting that Chesterfield County's unemployment rate tops 17 percent. "That's a lot of people without jobs. The economy is terrible nationwide and worse in rural areas."
Nestle Waters North America officials declined comment last week, but released a statement saying they were evaluating sites in Chesterfield County and Mid-Atlantic states. The company wants to find a spring to bottle the Deer Park brand of water, the company said.
Chesterfield officials said the new plant will initially provide 30 to 40 jobs, but those knowledgeable about the proposal say that could grow to 300 jobs if the plant were to add additional bottling lines. Sewer plant supporters say the company will invest millions of dollars in the area as well as create the need for construction jobs.
Odom said the area has other potential industrial prospects. He met this past week with one company that could bring 462 jobs to Chesterfield County. He declined to name the company. Odom said developers also are interested in building a gated community on Lake Robinson if they can get sewer service.
Odom said his company's proposal has been unfairly characterized by Campolong and others.
There's little chance the sewer plant will pollute the aquifer that's so important for drinking water in the region, he said.
The proposed 800,000-gallon-per-day plant will treat wastewater to a higher level than many plants and then send the water into a series of man-made basins in a field outside town.
Once in the basins, the water will trickle slowly into the ground. As it flows through the sand and soil, the water will be cleansed even further before reaching the drinking water aquifer - if at all. The aquifer is at least 100 feet below ground, according to Alligator officials.
Alligator officials say the company's proposal actually is a better way to dispose of wastewater. Federal and state environmental agencies are increasingly tough on new wastewater discharges to rivers, streams or lakes.
In this case, discharging to the basins is better than dumping in a nearby creek that flows to Lake Robinson, a popular recreational waterway near McBee, Odom said.
"A lot of this is small-town politics, I guess," Odom said.
A BETTER WAY?
Some say McBee wants control of the water system Alligator runs. The town used to operate the system but had trouble doing so.
Rachel M. Jeffrey, 73, said that has nothing to do with her opposition.
Jeffrey grew up in McBee, moved away to New York when she was a teenager and lived in California for years. But she and her sister returned to McBee in the mid-1990s for a visit and realized they wanted to move home.
About six years ago, they built houses next to each other on Farm Loop Road, unaware of Alligator's sewer plans. The plant and discharge site will be a stone's throw from their homes.
All they want is peace and quiet - and the smell of fresh air. That won't be easy with a sewer plant and discharge site so close by, Jeffrey said.
"I'm just a small-town person at heart," Jeffrey said. "It's peaceful where we are. We are surrounded by nature.
"At this point, McBee doesn't really need a sewer plant," she continued. "But if you must have it, there's got to be a better way."
Mayor Campolong said the sewer plant could cause more problems than some people realize. Some of the area's water supply already is tainted by farm chemicals, and sewage discharges could make things worse, he said.
And, if the facility is built as proposed, with wastewater being released onto the field, it could create interest to pipe or truck wastewater from other areas to dispose of in the field, Campolong said. If that happens, McBee could become a regional disposal site for wastewater, just as a huge landfill in nearby Lee County is for garbage, he said.
Odom noted that Alligator's board is against serving a wide regional area, but Campolong is wary.
"We believe this will eventually destroy our town and our aquifer," Campolong said.