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Politics & Government

Tainted drinking water in rural communities draws attention of DHEC chief, lawmakers



A state practice of issuing light fines when utilities break safe drinking water laws is drawing criticism from South Carolina’s new environmental protection agency director as questions rise about the quality of water in small, out-of-the way communities.

Rick Toomey, director at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Thursday the agency is reassessing its practice of allowing utilities to escape fines in an effort to coax them into resolving problems.

DHEC often levies low fines, or forgives them altogether, for small drinking water systems, The State newspaper reported this month in a series of stories about small, troubled utilities. The department has said it prefers that small systems use the money to fix problems, rather than pay fines.

But Toomey, in his first interview since being named DHEC chief, said assessing light fines hasn’t always persuaded utilities to clean up their acts.

“DHEC is looking at how did we deal with the fines in the past, and it certainly in some instances didn’t solve the problem by waiving fines,’’ said Toomey, who has been on the job one month. “I think we have to reassess the process and continue to work with the small rural systems.’’

Scores of small utilities that escaped fines have broken safe drinking water laws multiple times, DHEC records show. All told, more than 150 small drinking water systems have had multiple DHEC cases against them during the past quarter century, according to DHEC enforcement data.

State Rep. Nathan Ballentine, in a recent interview with The State, said he’s particularly concerned that private, for-profit water companies aren’t being fined more heavily.

He leveled criticism at Blue Granite Water, formerly Carolina Water Service. Since 1990, DHEC has made at least 25 drinking water cases against small systems the company owns, but rarely has issued heavy fines, records show.

“Spare the rod, spoil the child,’’ said Ballentine, a Republican from Chapin. “I think that is what has gone on. Apparently, what they are doing is not working. You don’t want to necessarily put (water companies) out of business, but at what point do we just let all this stuff continue?’’

Troubles in small water systems have drawn attention since The State reported that tiny utilities across South Carolina are having difficulty providing clean water to customers, many of them living in poor, out-of-the-way communities.

Roaches, vulture droppings and cracked wells have been found in small systems, the newspaper reported in its “Tainted Water’’ series. But the average fine for breaking drinking water laws is under $1,000, an amount far lower than fines for breaking air, hazardous waste and water pollution laws, The State reported.

Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders weighed in, saying they are concerned about drinking water in South Carolina. On Wednesday, candidate Cory Booker said he’s worried about drinking water and improving rural infrastructure.

Toomey said problems in small water systems are a state concern.

“It’s not just a DHEC problem,’’ Toomey said. “It’s not just a community problem. It’s a state issue. We need to all work together to solve it.’’

Ultimately, South Carolina needs enough money to improve small water systems, he said. DHEC is seeking $235,000 from the Legislature to beef up its office of rural water to help small utilities.

Toomey’s remarks came as state Sen. Marlon Kimpson wrote a letter Thursday to DHEC seeking information about the difficulties small utilities face in providing clean drinking water. He said South Carolina faces a “public health crisis” from toxins in drinking water. Kimpson said The State’s articles prompted his questions.

“This issue ought to be of higher priority on our legislative agenda,’’ Kimpson, D-Charleston, said Thursday. “Clean water is essential to the well-being of the citizens of our state. I would add it to the list of public health issues, next to opioids and gun violence. We must act expeditiously to cure these problems and protect our children.’’

At least 41 small drinking water systems have violated the safe drinking water standard for lead since 2011, The State reported. Lead pollution in drinking water is a particular concern for children, who can suffer long-lasting health effects from exposure, Kimpson said

Rep. Robert Brown, a Charleston County Democrat, said small, rural water and sewer systems don’t get enough attention because urban areas have bigger populations with more clout. But he said small communities shouldn’t be ignored. Brown blasted DHEC’s past efforts to oversee small water and sewer systems, saying the agency often gives only lip service to problems.

“They will give you a nice song and dance that everything is perfect,’’ Brown said. “You go back in the community, there’s nothing (improved). They are not doing it. When it comes to DHEC .... they mostly cater to the businesses, as opposed to the concerns of the people in the community.’’

While questions rise about DHEC’s efforts to protect drinking water, one small city with a troubled water system will soon get more attention, Toomey said.

DHEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are preparing to conduct special drinking water tests next week in Denmark to learn more about the water people have complained about, he said.

Denmark, a community of about 3,000 people in Bamberg County, has received national attention for problems in its drinking water. People have complained for years about stinking, discolored water that some suspect has caused health problems, like itchy skin and hair loss.

The most recent issue revolves around Denmark’s use of a chemical, which was not approved by the EPA, to kill slime in one of the city’s drinking water wells. Clemson University, which regulates the chemical for the EPA, told Denmark to stop using the material last summer. The chemical is not commonly used in water systems. Regulators in North Carolina have banned the use of the chemical, called Halosan, because of health concerns, The State reported in November.

The results of the DHEC-EPA tests will be provided to the community, Toomey said. The water in about a dozen homes will be tested, in addition to businesses and the city’s drinking water supply well, agency spokesman Tommy Crosby said. DHEC has previously said the water is safe to drink.

“We’ll provide full information to the residents to let them know the status of it right now,’’ Toomey said. “One of the most important things is open communication with the residents and sharing information, and making sure that they believe ... that DHEC is there to support them, and to work with them. And we are not part of the problem, but we want to be part of the solution.’’

Staff Writer Bristow Marchant contributed to this story.

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