Cindi Ross Scoppe

What part of ‘public health’ doesn’t DHEC understand?

Kayakers land their boats at Hopes Ferry Landing at Saluda Shoals Park last month before they learned that DHEC had issued a warning against swimming in that part of the Saluda because poorly treated sewage was draining into the river.
Kayakers land their boats at Hopes Ferry Landing at Saluda Shoals Park last month before they learned that DHEC had issued a warning against swimming in that part of the Saluda because poorly treated sewage was draining into the river. online@thestate.com

AFTER FINDING elevated bacteria levels five times between May 10 and June 1, Riverbanks Zoo decided simply cleaning its children’s wading pool wasn’t enough. In early June, officials closed their new attraction and started making plans to convert it to a splash park.

Separately, after hearing about a sewage leak upstream, zoo officials started testing the water in the Saluda River, which it uses for the animals and the grounds. On five occasions between June 7 and June 16, the testing found elevated levels of E. coli in the river as well. So zoo officials informed employees, had their horticulturists use rubber gloves and started watering plants at night as an extra precaution to avoid exposure to visitors.

Zoo closes children’s tadpole pond after complications arise

High bacteria levels discovered in Saluda near Riverbanks Zoo

Meantime, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control was involved with its own E. coli problems on the Saluda, after being notified on May 20 by Riverkeeper Bill Stangler that he had found elevated bacteria levels at the popular Saluda Shoals Park about six miles upstream from the zoo. Mr. Stangler, riverkeeper for the Congaree and lower Saluda rivers, is certified by DHEC to sample for water pollution.

The operative term for DHEC’s response is “involved with.” Unlike zoo officials, DHEC was not doing a lot of testing, and it did not take immediate action to limit public exposure. In fact, the state’s health agency didn’t seem to take Mr. Stangler’s report seriously until June 10, after it received an anonymous tip about the pollution. It wasn’t until June 21 — more than a month after the initial report of elevated bacteria levels — that the agency issued an advisory against swimming at the park.

It’s a stunning contrast between a government agency that was doing everything it could to protect the public health and one that was not.

I don’t mean to suggest that DHEC needed to shut down the park or even issue a no-swim advisory back in May. The important contrast here isn’t between the content of the two responses; it’s between the timing and urgency of those responses.

DHEC officials told The State’s Sammy Fretwell they didn’t raise an alarm earlier because they didn’t think the elevated pollution levels were high enough or would last long enough to warrant a no-swim advisory.

Sewage in the Saluda deserves more attention, politicians, river advocates say

SC regulators were warned about pollution at Saluda River park in May

Riverkeeper checks for pollution when state regulators don’t

DHEC lifts Saluda River swimming advisory

That might be a reasonable response if the contamination were in the middle of nowhere, rather than at a park that draws more than 600,000 people a year, up to 750 of whom go in the water on peak days — in addition to the boaters, fishermen and other swimmers attracted to other entrances to the lower Saluda.

It might be a reasonable response if the contamination had occurred in the middle of winter, or early spring, or fall, or pretty much any time other than peak summer water sports season.

It might have been reasonable back in the days when the only way to let people know about contaminated water was by posting signs on the shoreline, rather than simply posting a notice on social media.

Bacteria-laden water can produce infections when it comes in contact with open cuts, and people who swallow sewage-tainted water can get upset stomachs, and there’s no doubt that both happened in the month that DHEC didn’t warn people the water was dangerous.

“Anytime we have something that could be a potential hazard, people need to be aware of that,” Rep. Chip Huggins told Mr. Fretwell.

Even if it was OK to withhold the information early on, it’s hard to understand why DHEC kept silent for another week after post-anonymous-tip sampling on June 13 and June 15 revealed higher-than-normal bacteria levels in the river.

“I don’t know why all testing isn’t made available in real time when they have it,” said Rep. James Smith. “We should look at publicizing that.”

We should indeed.

DHEC’s assumptions about the temporary and tempered nature of the contamination were based on another erroneous assumption: that it was caused by stormwater runoff and would dissipate naturally. It turned out that the culprit was Carolina Water Service, which had released poorly treated wastewater from its treatment plant at Friarsgate, near the park. You’ll recall that Carolina Water is the private company that owns another wastewater treatment plant on the Saluda that DHEC has been trying, so far unsuccessfully, to shutter.

Carolina Water takes heat for pollution discharges

One of my regular correspondents summed up DHEC’s handling of the Saluda River pollution this way: “Warned by a person voluntarily doing DHEC’s job (monitoring a long-troubled never-solved site). Made a minimal response. Cooked up an explanation implying no fault to DHEC or the failing facility it permits. Made the cooked-up explanation a conclusion and then acted on it (that is, used it as an excuse not to act). About three weeks later an anonymous tip from someone else doing DHEC’s job triggers a further look, with the problem still there. Puts up a sign. Makes excuses.”

This person is a relentless critic of DHEC, but even taking that into consideration, it’s hard to dismiss his critique — and harder still to accept DHEC’s slow response to the very sort of public health threat it’s supposed to be guarding against.

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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