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Disease-carrying bacteria, cancer-causing chemicals, toxic nitrates and brain-damaging metals have been found in small water systems across South Carolina.
Utilities that fail to protect public drinking water rarely pay heavy fines in South Carolina and, sometimes, they pay nothing at all.
Since 2012, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has made more than 250 cases against utilities for violating safe-drinking water laws, agency records show.
But those utilities paid fines of less than $1,000 per violation, on average. In more than 150 cases since 2012, DHEC did not issue any fine, according to agency enforcement data analyzed by The State Media Co.
Violations ranged from failing to maintain equipment to allowing radioactive materials and bacteria into wells that supply thousands of people, The State’s analysis found. Sometimes, regulators cited utilities for having toxic metals and nitrates in drinking water supply wells.
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In one case, the agency did not levy fines against a water company, despite years of finding potentially harmful radium in water that supplies hundreds of northeast Richland County residents, according to records reviewed by The State.
Some critics are unhappy with DHEC’s oversight of drinking water systems, particularly small ones that have had problems for years.
“I felt like DHEC didn’t do their job,’’ said former state Sen. Jake Knotts, a Lexington County resident who complained for years to the agency about Carolina Water Service, which operates a string of small utilities across South Carolina, and is in the process of changing its name to Blue Granite Water Company. “They didn’t protect the public.’’
DHEC’s penalties for drinking water-safety violations are small when compared to other fines issued by the agency.
Since 2012, the average DHEC fine for violating air-pollution and hazardous-waste laws has topped $9,000. The average fine for polluting rivers and creeks was about $6,800, more than six times what utilities pay for violating drinking water laws, enforcement records show.
Agency officials say they sometimes issue heavy fines, but their fines are often low — or non-existent — for drinking-water violations because small water systems can’t afford to pay the penalties.
DHEC’s reasoning? The agency figures it is better for the utilities to spend money they would have paid in fines to make improvements in their water systems.
“Many factors go into the calculation of a civil penalty,’’ DHEC spokesman Tommy Crosby said in an email, noting a company’s or government’s history of obeying environmental laws, for example, is considered in deciding whether to fine them.
Crosby said DHEC sometimes issues “stipulated penalties,’’ or fines utilities will have to pay if they don’t fix problems. But he said the agency rarely collects those fines because water systems resolve their problems and come into compliance.
“The drinking water program has, historically, stressed the importance of returning a public water system to compliance,’’ Crosby’s email said. “The stipulated penalty is an incentive to return to compliance to avoid having to pay the penalty.’’
But some utilities that evaded fines have broken safe-water laws more than once, records show. In some cases, the violators are for-profit businesses that make millions of dollars a year.
About four-dozen water systems that were not assessed fines, or had fines reduced, from 2012 to 2018 had other enforcement cases against them for breaking safe drinking-water laws. Some of those violations dated to the 1990s. Others violated the law again after being cited from 2012 to 2018, according to enforcement records reviewed by The State.
Among those is Carolina Water Service. Nationally, its parent corporation, Utilities Inc., owns companies that operate 500 water and sewer systems in 15 states, serving about 300,000 customers, according to D&B Hoovers, a business research company.
DHEC has made at least 25 drinking water enforcement cases against Carolina Water Service companies during the past quarter century, more than any other utility. But the agency issued heavy fines in only a few cases. In many cases, no fines were issued at all, enforcement records show.
During the past seven years, DHEC chose not to assess fines for six Carolina Water Service systems in the Columbia area. Those systems serve the Charleswood, Indian Pines, Peachtree Acres, Stonegate and Rollingwood neighborhoods, as well as people living in an area along Interstate 20.
Mae Wu, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, said it makes sense for DHEC to work with small water systems, rather than issue fines. But if violations occur repeatedly, state policies need to change.
“Not fixing the problem isn’t the solution,’’ Wu said.
Buried in piles of drinking water records at DHEC is a three-page sheet that highlights a chilling story: For parts of 14 years, a radioactive contaminant tainted the drinking water system at Charleswood, a working-class community of about 500 people in northeastern Richland County.
The three pages list test results showing radium levels exceeded safe drinking-water standards 56 percent of the time from 2002-2016 at Charleswood. Elevated radium levels were recorded in 35 of 62 water tests conducted for DHEC, according to test results.
Radium is a cancer-causing pollutant that can seep into wells used for drinking water. Radium occurs naturally in South Carolina’s groundwater, but state law requires drinking-water systems to remove or filter it out to protect customers.
State records show DHEC made three cases against Carolina Water Service over radium pollution at Charleswood from 2006 to 2016. But the agency never assessed fines, those records show. In each case, DHEC told the company to come up with a plan to stop the radium pollution.
Charleswood resident Tameka Donaldson said she wants to know why radium was in the water and whether it presents a threat to anyone now. Donaldson, 25, has four children under the age of 10. She said she knew nothing about radium in the water until speaking with The State.
“I’m not up on what we need to do about it,’’ Donaldson said as her youngsters hopped off a school bus and ran into her yard earlier this year. “But if there’s something inside the water, they need a better cleaning system, a purifier or a filter.’’
Both Carolina Water Service and DHEC say the company now is treating the water and the system complies with federal standards. Carolina Water notified the community each time radium showed up in the water in the past, company spokesman Reese Hannon said in an email.
DHEC’s Crosby said the radium problems at Charleswood involved multiple wells that were dealt with in different enforcement cases. One well has been abandoned. At another well, equipment has been repaired, according to DHEC.
“The problem has been resolved,’’ Crosby’s email read.
Others say they’ve heard that before. Some are galled that DHEC hasn’t been tougher on Carolina Water Service through the years. Unlike many small cash-strapped water systems across South Carolina, the company has deep pockets, making light fines a cost of doing business, critics say. Utilities Inc.’s recent revenues have been reported to exceed $400 million.
Low fines mean “they don’t have a big incentive to make sure we are protected,’’ said Leslie Hendrix, who lives at Dutchman Shores, a Chapin area neighborhood served by Carolina Water.
Records filed with the state Office of Regulatory Staff show Carolina Water Service and its sister businesses make up the largest private water company in the state, with about 30,000 water and sewer customers. The company is classified as a large system by Regulatory Staff because it earns more than $1 million annually in South Carolina.
Carolina Water Service says it does its best, but many of its water systems needed upgrades when the company acquired them. It takes time to bring them up to speed, but Carolina Water always tries to follow DHEC’s orders, officials said.
“Operating small drinking water systems presents unique challenges,’’ Carolina Water said in a statement. “Unlike most municipal systems, we operate over 100 diverse drinking water systems, ranging from systems with as few as 16 connections with one well to systems serving several hundred connections with four or more wells.’’
Small government systems and private businesses face their own challenges.
Andrews, a Georgetown County town best known as the birthplace of singer Chubby Checker, is one of them.
In 2014, DHEC found nine violations during an inspection of the town’s water system, including inoperable equipment and not enough staffers to run the waterworks. The agency said it would only fine Andrews if the town didn’t fix the problems.
Then, in 2016, DHEC found even more problems, including some of the same ones agency staffers noted in 2014.
The department identified 26 violations that needed correcting, including not having enough staff to operate and maintain the water system.
DHEC again did not fine the town. In a May 2016 enforcement order, the agency told Andrews the town would be fined $8,000 if it failed to make improvements to its waterworks.
An August 2016 DHEC report on Andrews said, “No meaningful improvement noted by regional inspectors.’’
Those weren’t the first times Andrews had run into trouble with DHEC and not been fined. The agency also cited the town in 2010 for failing to offer a plan on how it would monitor the drinking water system. But DHEC told the town it would not have to pay a $3,600 fine if it resolved those problems.
Andrews Mayor Frank McClary said the town’s water and sewer systems faced major challenges when he took office about three years ago. The water system was leaking so much water that it formed a small pond in town, and not all of its wells were on line.
McClary said the town has been working to make improvements and has no plans to give up running the waterworks, in part because it brings in revenue.
“We were in pretty bad shape a couple of years ago,” he said. “But it’s now much better.’’
Despite McClary’s assurances, Andrews failed its annual DHEC inspection in 2018 and again landed in trouble with the department’s enforcement staff. In December 2018, DHEC found 25 violations of the safe drinking water law in Andrews, including inadequate programs to flush out water lines, as well as water leaks. At one point, the town’s average water loss was 64 percent, records show.
Like in the past, DHEC’s enforcement case did not include a fine against Andrews.
Andrews hasn’t resolved all of the long-standing problems because it has not had the money, Crosby said. McClary and Crosby said troubles in Andrews focused on how the town maintains and operates the system, rather than water-quality problems.
‘Important to have a new strategy’
DHEC officials say a new strategy they are considering focuses on spending more time trying to keep systems from falling out of compliance.
Sometimes, that could mean consolidating small waterworks with big water systems, or having small systems band together. Or it could mean helping them find government grants and loans.
A regional system formed in Hampton County several years ago is credited with providing a clean, more reliable source of water for that Lowcountry county and five of its small towns.
The agency’s Office of Rural Water — formed three years ago to address lead problems in small S.C. water systems after the Flint, Mich., water crisis — will become more aggressive at helping systems, officials said. The agency also is seeking a budget increase to help small water systems.
“It’s so important to have a new strategy, not just identifying the issues and the problems,’’ said Myra Reece, DHEC’s environmental division chief. “It’s how can we facilitate fixing the problem.”