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Private Sewer Service - Environmental Blackmail or Hollow Threat?
Lee Walton

True to the old cliché that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in awhile, a brief spark of journalistic enlightenment appeared in a recent Palter and Chatter editorial entitled Utility's growth management role; the author acknowledged that "Coordination among public jurisdictions and the utility (Charleston Water System) will help limit the public infrastructure costs and traffic congestion that accompany urban sprawl." With no small amount of irony, this editor shared the sentiments of the recently terminated CWS Executive Director, "… John Cook tells us that the utility has limited sewage treatment capacity, and has to carefully decide how it will be used. Philosophically, we're trying to match up our service with the urban growth boundary," he said." That one statement could very well have been the proverbial last straw for Mayor J. Pericles Riley and his long-standing annexation policy. City sewer service has always been the "carrot" Pericles dangled above deal-estate developers as the ultimate enticement for annexation.

Recently, several rural areas of Charleston County have become targets for urban sprawl that has produced countless new subdivisions, over-crowded schools, strained public utilities and gridlock on many area roadways. Urban sprawl East of the Cooper has spurred a "tipping-point" debate on Awendaw's Town Council. The Towns of Hollywood, Ravenel and Meggett now struggle to control development spilling over from James Island, Johns Island and West Ashley. Elsewhere, increasing development threatens rural farmland beyond the Urban Growth Boundary.

Each part of the County has its own unique development constraints, but each shares the single most restrictive and costly limitation- a finite limit to public wastewater treatment capacity. Of all public utilities necessary for urban sprawl to proliferate, public sewer service is the most critical and expensive. The treatment and disposal of domestic sewage is the most costly, highly regulated and problematic of public utility services.

Deal-estate developers are now threatening to build a proliferation of private sewage treatment plants to serve their proposed residential developments on Johns Island and other remote parts of the County, but this little smoke and mirrors threat, even if possible, would be cost-prohibitive for the private sector. The 1970's federal "Clean Water Act" and its subsequent amendments mandate very stringent and restrictive environmental standards that now protect the water quality of our nations waterways, lakes and shorelines. These regulations are the ultimate weapons to control urban sprawl on the Sea Islands.

All major public sewage treatment facilities in the Low Country have "Point-Source Discharge Permits"; these facilities must meet federally mandated "Secondary Treatment Standards" for treated sewage in order to discharge into the Ashley or Cooper Rivers. As relatively clean as this treated sewage is, it's still not clean enough to allow oyster harvesting for consumption in Charleston Harbor. Beyond Charleston Harbor, federal water quality standards increase dramatically.

Church Creek, Wadmalaw Sound, the Stono, and Edisto Rivers to the south and tidal inlets to the north of Breach Inlet with "open shell-fish waters" have water quality standards that, for all intent and purpose, prohibit the "Point-Source Discharge" of treated sewage. Hollywood, Meggett and Ravenel will find it exorbitantly expensive and all but impossible to obtain regulatory permits to construct a new point-source discharge sewage treatment facility south of Rantoles Creek. Likewise, threats by deal-estate developers to build private sewage treatment plants with point-source discharges in these protected waters are hollow threats at best or blackmail at worst to get public sewer service.

Spray irrigation disposal of treated sewage is an alternative to point source discharge. Barrier island resorts irrigate their golf courses with treated sewage; it's called "Nonpoint-Source Land Application". Without this method of disposal, the densely developed resort communities on Kiawah and Seabrook Islands would not be possible. Could deal-estate developers spray irrigate on Johns Island and elsewhere? That's the same question that the Towns of Ravenel, Hollywood and Meggett must now answer. CWS recently gave up its plan to use nonpoint-source spray irrigation on the Cainhoy Peninsula and now plans to pump raw sewage from Daniel Island and the Cainhoy Peninsula over ten miles to the Plum Island Treatment Facility on James Island.

Federal and state regulations governing nonpoint-source land application of treated domestic sewage have changed dramatically in the past decade. For a private or public utility now considering spray irrigation effluent disposal, the challenge is to find well-buffered highland with well-drained soils and land elevations above the 100-year flood level (the project killer). Also, public and private sewer utilities can no longer expand their existing spray irrigation disposal facilities within the 100-year flood plain.

Then there's the septic tank Red Herring that deal-estate developers love to use as a scare tactic. In the past, many mobile home lots and houses were built in rural areas with septic tank systems that were not adequately designed, permitted or properly constructed; consequently, malfunctions were common. Under current public health standards, septic tank systems are highly regulated and closely monitored during construction. A properly designed septic tank system, when installed in suitable soils and constructed to current regulatory standards, is a safe, efficient and cost-effective alternative to public sewer service. Unfortunately for deal-estate developers, septic tank systems don't work in marginal soils with high water tables and aren't practical or suitable for small lot, high-density residential developments.

Lastly, stringent water quality standards to protect the nation's streams, lakes and rivers are essential for good public health policy. Just consider that the treated sewage discharged from the City of Orangeburg into the Edisto River ends up in CWS's Edisto River water supply tunnel that supplies its Hanahan Water Treatment Plant, Charleston's source of drinking water. Likewise, most of the cities and towns in the interior of the state discharge treated sewage into rivers that ultimately flow into Lake Moultrie, the source for Santee Cooper's Water Treatment Plant that provides drinking water to most of Berkeley County. Considering these sources for the Low Country's drinking water, surface water quality is extremely important; sewage treatment malfunctions upstream could have dire consequences for us all.

Your Comments:

You seem to have a real grasp of the specifics of the situation. Thanks for sharing. I wish we could get this type of in-depth and definitive information in the P&C. It only takes one well-written piece to shed light on an issue, but in the P&C (and other media) they prefer to give you dozens of incomplete, and often confusing, articles that really never give you a complete picture of the matter at hand. Hmm... Do they just do this to keep you dependent on future articles? Nah, that would just be cynical of me!

Posted by: Lee in Wagener Terrace at August 16, 2006 01:04 AM

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