Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Did DHEC deny Carolina Water’s discharge permit because it had no choice, or because of politics?

Treated sewage water bubbles up from a pipe in the lower Saluda River.
Treated sewage water bubbles up from a pipe in the lower Saluda River. kkfoster@thestate.com

FOR YEARS I lumbered out of bed in the middle of the night and drank a glass of cold tap water. The habit started when I was a child, continued through college and was still with me when I moved to the Lexington County community of Oak Grove, where the water was provided not by government or anyone else who was the least bit accountable to the public but by a privately owned and not very well regulated company called Carolina Water Service.

The first night I drank the water I felt a little queasy. The second night I threw up. It didn’t take long to figure out that the water didn’t agree with my stomach, so I switched to Diet Coke. Before long, the glass of water at breakfast was having the same effect, so I doubled up on the Diet Coke.

We eventually moved into Columbia, but the pattern was set: It was a decade before I started drinking water again, and it never has reclaimed its status as my beverage of choice.

I got off easy, with a wicked carbonated beverage addiction and eight years of ridiculously high bills for nausea-inducing water.

Shortly after I escaped from Carolina Water, a sister company started selling arsenic-tainted water to the folks in a Chapin neighborhood; it continued for at least three years, despite orders from the Department of Health and Environmental Control to install a filter. Another sister company sold radium-tainted water to customers.

As The State’s Sammy Fretwell discovered, regulators slapped Carolina Water’s parent company, Utilities Inc., with 55 enforcement orders over 20 years for water and sewage system violations — far more than any other utility. But slapped is the important word here: Not a single subsidiary was shut down, and more than half the violations resulted in fines of $5,000 or less.

It was against that backdrop of repeated violations and resultant wrist-slaps that Carolina Water applied this year to renew its permit to dump sewage from its I-20 treatment plant into the lower Saluda River west of Columbia. Among the company’s violations has been dumping untreated sewage into the river.

DHEC initially indicated it would renew the permit, and even make it more palatable to Carolina Water, even though the existing discharge permit requires the company to connect to a regional sewer system, so it won’t keep dumping treated or untreated sewage into the lower Saluda.

Midlands legislators vowed to change the law if necessary to prevent DHEC from issuing the permit, and it was against that backdrop that DHEC did a 180 and announced a week ago that after considering public opposition, it would deny the permit. So Carolina Water will have to reach an agreement with the town of Lexington to hook into the regional system, or else — well, or else.

This clearly is a good outcome.

And yet, the decision leaves me with a nagging feeling.

When DHEC announced its reversal, it said, essentially, that there was no way it could issue the permit. Carolina Water “has a permit which requires connection to a regional sewer system or other treatment facilities,” the agency explained, and it “is ineligible for reissuance of a permit once notified by the Department that a regional sewer system is operational. The regional sewer system is operational.”

Here’s the thing: That mandate has been in effect for 16 years. Yet up until this month, DHEC was working to renew the permit. Officials even suggested that they had no choice.

So which is it?

Is DHEC required by law or policy to not issue the permit? Or is it required by law or policy to issue it? Either the law should dictate that the permit be denied or it should dictate that it be approved.

Either agency officials had been cowed into sacrificing the public health and ignoring their own policies by a litigious applicant or DHEC board members who can’t stomach the thought of inconveniencing polluters, or else the agency re-interpreted its policies as a result of public opposition.

This has the feel of yet another case of DHEC decisions being dictated not by the law or science, but by politics. And that’s troublesome, whether it protects a valuable river or gives a polluter a slap on the wrist.

The Legislature has gone to great lengths to insulate the agency from the politics of governors, giving them some appointment power but no power to remove people who don’t do their bidding. That hasn’t been very effective, but lawmakers did make the effort.

They never even pretended to try to insulate DHEC from the serious politics in South Carolina — the politics of the Legislature. Check that: the power of individual legislators, who unlike the governor are not elected by the people of the whole state but who can and too often do secretly sabotage the agency’s efforts or funding if they don’t get their way.

Sometimes their way serves the public good, and sometimes it harms the public health.

This outsized role played by individual legislators makes DHEC’s enforcement efforts seem random: Today it reverses itself and issues a dredging permit after a couple of senators insist that the dredging is needed; tomorrow it reverses itself and denies a discharge permit after it’s criticized by legislators who want to protect the environment.

That’s no way to run one of our most important state agencies, and it’s certainly no way to protect our environment. Unfortunately, the only people who can change this system are the people who created it and who continue to bend it to their advantage: our legislators.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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