Politics & Government

SC’s bad drinking water is part of ‘national emergency,’ presidential candidate says

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.

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris wants the country to spend more than $200 billion cleaning up and improving substandard drinking water systems like those in South Carolina that have trouble providing clean water to customers in small, out-of-the way communities.

Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is introducing a bill that includes establishing a one-time $50 billion emergency fund to help cleanse contaminated drinking water in communities across the nation where homes and schools are at risk. The money would be used to find pollution and replace aging pipes that are delivering substandard water.

The bill, which focuses on helping poor, cash-strapped water systems, also would help “environmentally at-risk’’ communities in South Carolina and other states keep water bills affordable, while requiring more government oversight of perfluoroalkyl substances. Those are unregulated but pose an increasing risk to water systems and private wells in South Carolina and other states.

About $170 billion would be directed toward Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act programs nationally. All of the money to be spent on water systems would be annual allocations, except for the $50 billion emergency fund, according to the Harris campaign.

Her proposal, called the “Water Justice Act,’’ follows stories from California to Kentucky and South Carolina revealing the struggles that water systems are having, particularly in small communities.

The State highlighted South Carolina’s problems in a five-day series, “Tainted Water,’’ that found as many as 800,000 people served by small utilities are at risk of drinking substandard water. Harris cited the series in a tweet last spring, and a news release Monday from the Harris campaign included a link to the newspaper’s series this past March.

She and other Democratic candidates have referred to South Carolina’s clean drinking water challenges during stops in the Palmetto State this year.

“Every American has the right to clean water, period,’’ Harris said in a statement. “We must take seriously the existential threat represented by future water shortages and acknowledge that communities across the country — particularly communities of color — already lack access to safe and affordable water. Achieving true justice in our nation will require us to recognize the precious nature of water and take bold action to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions to ensure it is accessible for all.”

Unlike large municipal systems, many of South Carolina’s small drinking water systems do not generate enough revenue to make repairs to outdated and rusting pipes.

The Harris campaign said her bill would help S.C. water systems that don’t have the tax or customer base to pay for improvements. The money would prioritize high-risk communities like Denmark, a small city in Bamberg County that has had difficulty ensuring clean drinking water reaches its customers.

Monday’s statement and news release from Harris did not explain where the money, about $250 billion, would come from, and her campaign said later that “funding sources still need to be identified.’’ That’s sure to draw scrutiny from other candidates.

But an increase in funding would be welcome in small South Carolina communities. Water systems in South Carolina need nearly $2 billion in repairs, according to the S.C. Rural Infrastructure Authority.

Bonnie Ammons, director of the authority, told S.C. lawmakers last month that pipes like “tissue paper’’ in small drinking water systems are threatening people’s health. Her comment, highlighted in The State, was read during the state Democratic convention by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who said more needs to be done to help at-risk water systems.

State and federal agencies have a variety of programs to help struggling utilities, including a $25 million state grant program and a $33 million revolving loan program, according to the Rural Infrastructure Authority. But that isn’t enough — and even when money is available, many communities don’t have the staff or expertise to apply for grants and loans, or the money to pay back low interest loans, The State reported in March.

During a meeting with legislators last week, Ammons said small utilities “don’t always comply’’ with clean drinking water laws.

“The system gets old because of lack of investment, not because there’s not a desire to make the investments, but because the resources simply are not available,’’ Ammons told the House Legislative Oversight Committee. “All of the resources that we have at our disposal, both at the federal level and the state level, are still not going to be enough to address what we know is a need everywhere.’’

State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a former Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor and member of the committee, said she favors the idea of more federal spending on improving drinking water in rural areas, as well as upgrading sewer systems.

“We certainly haven’t allocated enough funding at the state level to bring these rural water systems up to speed, and the most vulnerable communities can’t raise the necessary funds through local taxes,’’ the Lancaster resident said. “Significant federal assistance would go a long way toward helping with these water and sewer systems that have been neglected for decades.

Small drinking water systems in South Carolina, unlike large ones, have more trouble complying with the most basic safe drinking water standards, such as keeping bacteria out of the water, The State found in its March series.

Water systems serving 360,000 people do not treat the water to keep lead from corroding off old pipes and into people’s tap water.

During the past eight years, 41 small utilities have exceeded the federal safety standard for lead in drinking water, the newspaper’s analysis of environmental records found. During that same period, only two large systems exceeded the lead standard, The State found. Lead can cause brain damage in children.

All told, more than 150 small drinking water systems have broken safe drinking water laws multiple times in the past 30 years in South Carolina, the newspaper found.

According to the Harris campaign, her bill would focus on three areas: making water safe to drink, making it affordable for poor people and keeping water accessible in the future.

Resolving the problem can’t be ignored any longer, according to the Harris campaign.

“Kamala Harris views this as a national emergency,’’ her campaign said.

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.