Environment

SC’s $2 billion problem: Pipes like ‘tissue paper’ threaten public health

South Carolina’s water crisis by the numbers

An investigation by The State found widespread problems with South Carolina's drinking water systems. Here is what you need to know.
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An investigation by The State found widespread problems with South Carolina's drinking water systems. Here is what you need to know.

South Carolina’s drinking water systems need nearly $2 billion worth of repairs in a state with limited resources and a growing crisis among its smallest water utilities, a top state official says.

Bonnie Ammons, director of the S.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority, said the need for repairs and improvement is most apparent in small utilities with crumbling pipes, little money and a lack of expertise to run the systems. She said pipes in many water systems are so old they are falling apart “like tissue paper.’’

“The challenges by far are based in smaller communities that are under 10,000 in population,’’ Ammons told a legislative committee this week. “Not all small communities are challenged, but many of them are. They have limited technical and operational staff, or financial staff.’’

“If something goes wrong, they call a plumber or they call a contractor to come out there and fix it because they don’t have their own staff.’’

Ammons’ remarks, made Wednesday to the House Legislative Oversight Committee, follow stories in The State that highlighted the perils that face many people who are served by small, out-of-the-way drinking water systems.

The newspaper found hundreds of examples of small utilities failing to keep toxins out of the water or not taking precautions to make sure the water is safe. Unlike most large systems, small utilities had trouble meeting the most basic requirements, such as keeping bacteria out of drinking water, according to The State’s research. Sometimes, utilities failed to notify customers when they found contamination in the water.

How to resolve the problem is a tough question, Ammons and others said.

The Rural Infrastructure Authority has taken aggressive steps to help small water systems get the money for improvements, and in numerous cases, the financial boost has made a difference — but that hasn’t been enough, Ammons said. A key challenge is “limited financial resources,’’ according to a presentation to the legislative committee.

“The needs are greater than all resources combined.,’’ Ammons said.

Established by the Legislature in 2010, the Rural Infrastructure Authority awards grants and approves loans for water and sewer projects in South Carolina.

Ammons’ written presentation to legislators shows the authority has a $25 million grant program available to local governments and public water and sewer agencies. The state has awarded $122 million in grants since 2013, the document says. This year, the state has $33 million available in state revolving loan money for drinking water projects, the agency reported Thursday night.

Ammons cited an American Society of Civil Engineers estimate that South Carolina has $1.8 billion in water system improvement needs.

State Reps. Bill Hixon and Mandy Powers Norrell, who are on the legislative oversight committee, said the state, at the very least, should consider a boost in funding. Substandard drinking water threatens the people who depend on small water systems, they said. Many of these systems serve pockets of people, but collectively, about 800,000 people in South Carolina get water from small systems.

“It could be a lot of expense’’ for the state, Hixon, R-Aiken, said. “But if a lot of people are dying, that’s going to be a lot of expense.’’

Powers Norrell, D-Lancaster, said she’s impressed with the Rural Infrastructure Authority’s efforts, but more needs to be done.

“It is a very expensive problem,’’ she said of the state’s need to improve water systems, particularly the small ones. “I do think we need to put more money into it.’’

A lack of funding for grants and loans may not be the only obstacle to helping small water systems. Many small drinking water systems don’t have the money to pay back loans, regardless of how favorable the interest rates are, the authority says. And some of the systems are not well run, according to customer complaints and records reviewed by The State newspaper.

Ammons said a key improvement would be to encourage small utilities to pool resources or merge with big systems to provide better water service, a proposal some have resisted in the past. Some small systems are reluctant to merge with big systems, fearing rate increases and a loss of control. Large systems aren’t always interested in bringing in small ones at their own expense, Ammons said.

Hixon said he’s concerned that some small water systems are repeatedly making mistakes. The Legislature should consider having state regulators take over small water systems, such as in Denmark, that repeatedly violate drinking water laws, he said. The state Department of Education already does that with poor-performing school districts, he said.

“If the water or sewer system is failing, there needs to be some mechanism for somebody like the state or the feds to come in and take these systems over,’’ Hixon said. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control says it does not have that authority, although it can ask a judge to appoint a receiver to run a failing water or sewer system.

Denmark, a small city in Bamberg County, has received government money in the past for its utilities, Ammons said. That includes a $495,000 grant in July 2011, according to documents obtained by The State.

Tests by state regulators have shown the water is safe to drink. But the city continues to have problems with the water system. Denmark failed eight of 15 state inspections from 2005 to 2018, The State reported last year.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control recently issued a violation notice against Denmark after the city failed two more inspections this past winter and spring. DHEC has made at least three enforcement cases against Denmark since 2010, records show.

Some residents of Denmark have complained of muddy, dark-colored water with a foul smell. Some have linked the water to health problems, such as hair loss and skin rashes, despite assurances by the city and DHEC that the water meets safe drinking water standards.

Last year, The State and CNN reported that Denmark’s city water department had been injecting a slime-killing chemical into the water for a decade without telling the public. Pesticide inspectors then ordered the town to quit using the chemical because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had not approved it. Denmark’s problems have generated calls for action from several Democratic presidential candidates, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who met with town residents.

Powers Norrell said she doesn’t have all the answers, but the Legislature needs to pay more attention to the problems small water systems face.

“Having clean, potable water that is not going to make a person sick is one of the most basic things we need for life,’’ Powers Norrell said. “When water systems don’ t have the ability to correct these problems on their own, it is incumbent on us to find a solution.’’

Sammy Fretwell has written about the environment for more than 20 years. Among the matters he covers are climate change, wildlife issues, nuclear policy, pollution, land protection, coastal development, energy and state environmental policy. Fretwell, who grew up in Anderson County, is a University of South Carolina graduate. Reach him at 803 771 8537.
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