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County Council, February 18

Lots of grief over recycling
Is water quality on Wadmalaw a real issue?
Warwick Jones

Council member Schweers described it as “painful”. We would have added “embarrassing”. He was referring to the discussion by the Environmental Management Committee during and following a presentation by staff. The purpose of the presentation was to bring the Committee up to date on developments in solid waste disposal. We suspect Committee members were more confused than enlightened.

Council member Condon is now the Chair of the Committee. She noted that County Administrator Bustraan had not long held his position and was still gathering data. She suggested that the Committee wait until all the appropriate data had been collected before judging. But attending Council members were not deterred in asking questions. The answers were confusing and often conflicting.

Questions related to the quantities of recyclables being sent to Dorchester County, Horry County, the costs, the losses, the likely benefit of the planned Material Recycling Facility (MRF), progress on building the MRF, and the flow to Bees Ferry landfill.

There were a lot of figures tossed out during the discussion and one thing seemed indisputable- the County was losing money on its recycling operations. We thought we heard a figure of $120,000 a month but this may have related only to the recyclables shipped to Horry County. Council member Rawl near the conclusion of the discussion contrasted the present situation with that of 2005. In 2005, the County had revenue from recyclables of $2.5 million, costs of about $3.1 and a loss of about $0.6 million. In 2014, revenue was $1.29 million, costs about $8 million and the loss about $6.7 million. He said the County did better with the incinerator. He also wondered out loud about the merits of the planned MRF.

We can’t vouch for the veracity of Council member Rawl’s figures but would note that he is usually very meticulous about his facts. But we are sure that recycling operations are very unprofitable and most likely will become even more so. The recyclables shipped out of the County are processed and then sold. Plastic is the major component of the final recycled products and the sales price is strongly influenced by the price of oil and gas. Oil and gas prices are very low presently and the market of the recycled products very low or non-existent. Staff also noted that the cost of disposing of e-waste, was also going to rise substantially shortly.

There were questions about the MRF, its planned capacity and adequacy. There are 3 outstanding Request for Proposals (RFPs) for the facility, relating to building, equipment and operations. Construction will take 18 months after the award of a contract. And there were also questions about future savings.

Staff said that answers to many of the questions posed would not be possible until the proposals were received. But in the meantime, staff would continue to work on and provide an analysis of the recyclable operations.

We confess surprise at the voids in the discussion last night. The County retains a consultant who one would expect could provide some reasonable estimates of costs and revenues. Yes, the County is still to hire a permanent head of the Solid Waste Division but it has an interim director. Some of the questions asked last night were so basic to the operation of the division, we wonder why there often were no answers. Some Council members were shaking their heads. We can understand why. We expect the Environmental Committee will get a far fuller briefing at its next meeting, probably in few weeks’ time.

We thought Planning/Public Works Committee members Schweers and Summey were very polite and restrained in their response to the request from a number of Wadmalaw Island residents. Their response should have been blunter, in our view. The issue was water quality on the Island. The residents wanted the County to do something about it.

All the water on Wadmalaw is drawn from wells, and of course, sewage disposal systems are septic. The residents complained about the quality of the water, its taste and the stains left when clothes were washed. Committee members Johnson and Darby were sympathetic to their cause and stated that all citizens had an entitlement to clean water, and we need to help the poor.

Unfortunately, Santee Cooper and/or DHEC was not coming to their help. The quality of water on the Island may be poor but it was not unhealthy. Only one of the samples taken and analyzed had evidence of E coli. However the samples had a strong mineral content. But as Committee member Schweers pointed out, a high mineral content was common in well water. It was not harmful and the water could be improved by the addition of a water softener at the well head. Considering the prevalence of septic systems on the island, the presence of E coli in one well may reflect its shallowness. Water drawn from deep wells escapes the contamination of septic leach fields.

Committee member Summey stated that there was no such thing as free water. To provide town water to Wadmalaw was estimated at about $30 million. The monthly cost to island resident was not estimated, but Committee member Summey noted that his water cost in North Charleston was about $80 a month. An internet search indicated that a water softener can be bought for about $600, or about $1000 if iron and other minerals were to be extracted.

The Committee asked staff to look into the issue of providing potable water, but in the meantime, to provide a facility at the County library on Johns Island where residents could fill containers with water. The cost of this facility was estimated at $4000.

Some Committee members would like to help the Wadmalaw residents. But does this create a precedent? Can other residents of the County seek County assistance in installing water softeners or deepening wells? And if lack of money is an issue, should the County step up to help poor people pay their water bills when they draw on town water? And how do you define poor?

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