Over 20 million gallons of raw sewage reported in Tri-County spills

The Investigators

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – 7,000 gallons of sewage leaked into James Island Creek on Wednesday following a sewer line break.

Data the Count on 2 Investigators obtained reveals Tri-County utilities have reported sewer sanitary overflows totaling more than 20 million gallons of wastewater since August 2016.

Each spill is recorded with the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The state agency records the location, release volume, and nearby water bodies.

Andrew Wunderly with Charleston Waterkeeper said the spills can impact the environment.

“It’s a huge concern. It is a public health issue. This is raw, untreated sewage that is entering into our waterways where people fish, paddle, and recreate,” said Wunderly.

Both Berkeley County Water and Sanitation and Joint Base Charleston serve Berkeley County residents.

Berkeley County Water and Sanitation recorded 21 spills totaling 222,250 gallons of wastewater. More than half of the spills were associated with heavy rain events.

A Berkeley County Water and Sewer System representative said the utility rebuilds or rehabs three or more pump stations every year. They currently have over 150 pump stations.

Joint Base Charleston reported a spill on October 9, 2016, totaling 714,000 gallons of sewage near the headwaters of Foster Creek. According to the DHEC report, it took the utility 16 days to discover the damage from Hurricane Matthew.

DHEC reported 66 million gallons of spilled sewage in Dorchester County over the past three years. The high number is being disputed by the county following a Count on 2 Investigation. The county claims several numbers were imputed into the system with extra digits, altering the total. At least 5 million gallons of released wastewater are confirmed.

Dorchester County public information officer Tiffany Norton said the utility has spent over $1,000,000 to install an alert system. The system is intended to catch problems with pump stations before sanitary sewer overflows occur. 

“Our overall goal is to protect the environment through effective operation and maintenance of our wastewater collection and treatment systems. We strive for zero SSOs.”

Dorchester County Public Information Officer Tiffany Norton

Charleston County is divided by several providers including Charleston Water System, North Charleston Sewer District, Isle of Palms Water and Sewer Commission, and Mount Pleasant Waterworks. Together, the utilities reported more than 14 million gallons of released wastewater.

In October, North Charleston Sewer District reported a spill totaling 7.6 million gallons of wastewater. The utility attributed the spill to a power fluctuation during Hurricane Matthew.

In February 2018, Hollywood Sewer Collection System reported a 2.4 million gallon spill due to a force main break.

Baker Mordecai leads Charleston Water System’s wastewater collection department, he said severe weather poses the biggest difficulty for the utilities.

“During heavy rain events you can have basically extraneous flow that can come into the system and it’s called infiltration,” said Mordecai. “It can rob the system of capacity.”

Mordecai said they have been working to reduce infiltration and recently reported a 34% reduction in wet weather flow.

The majority of the overflows reported by Charleston Water System since 2016 occurred in West Ashley. Mordecai said many of the issues are caused by an aging pipe with sizing limitations.

“It serves as a bottleneck in the system, so when it rains really hard you have infiltration,” said Mordecai. “The extra flow has to go through the West Ashley tunnel and if it has nowhere to go it starts to back into the system,” he continued.

Mordecai said the utility is working on several projects to address issues west of the Ashley including building a replacement tunnel for the aging line which stretches 1.6 miles.

The new tunnel will carry 60 million gallons a day, almost three times the current tunnel’s 19 million gallon capacity.

“Increasing the size of this tunnel will have a dramatic positive impact on all the residents and businesses in West Ashley,” said Mordecai.

The $62 million dollar project is slated for completion at the end of 2019.

Experts said customers can help relieve the burden on utilities by avoiding flushing wipes and other extraneous material. They also encourage people to report any problems to their utility as soon as possible.

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