Yeah, but what’s ‘normal?’

Just now had to run downstairs to make a change in a Friday editorial because I got this release from DHEC to the effect that test results "from the Saluda River in Columbia indicate water quality has returned
to normal following the discharge of partially treated wastewater last

DHEC further says it’s taken down the warning signs that everybody was ignoring, so I guess it has a lot of confidence in the tests.

Personally, I’m not going to run down the river and jump in quite yet, partly because of my heavy dignity as eminence grise of the editorial board, and partly because, after I dragged my old behind back up the stairs after updating the editorial I got to conjurin’ (which is "Firefly" talk for "figuring"): Do they mean "South Carolina" normal, or "states with the kinds of safeguards in place to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the first place" normal?

Mind you, I’m not putting the blame on DHEC here — or rather, I’m only assigning to them their fair share of it. The whole way we provide such basic local services as sewer in this state — a fragmented, often overlapping mishmash of local gummints, special purpose districts and private providers — is such a mess it’s hard for anybody to keep track of it.

Maybe Mayor Bob ought to go ahead with pulling his summit together. With all these little local fiefdoms along the river counting on its waters to attract untold wealth to the region, I expect they’ve all got some more conjurin’ to do.

(Oh, and for those of you who conjure that Mayor Bob, or someone in local gummint, should have been able to deal with this without meeting with a bunch of other folks — well, you just don’t understand how weak and fragmented local gummint is in our state. You can thank the Legislature for that, by the way. They never miss an opportunity to keep things this way.)

23 thoughts on “Yeah, but what’s ‘normal?’

  1. cinderk

    Yes, the news looks good! Boy, those DHEC guys work fast, don’t they? Will there be any follow up to this anytime soon? I just clicked on the link and find a one line sentence that reads like a proclamation, hardly an explanation, much less an apology. How about some accountability here?
    I’m not going near the water for awhile, either. Summit On, somebody please!

  2. cinderk

    Yes, the news looks good! Boy, those DHEC guys work fast, don’t they? Will there be any follow up to this anytime soon? I just clicked on the link and find a one line sentence that reads like a proclamation, hardly an explanation, much less an apology. How about some accountability here?
    I’m not going near the water for awhile, either. Summit On, somebody please!

  3. p.m.

    So we should eat local, but beware the quality of local water, which isn’t governed enough.
    Somehow that seems inconsistent to me for two consecutive posts, even in light of the blinding light in August, not to mention the suffocating heat,

  4. John

    Looks like somebody is a little pissed that DHEC dropped their ad from his blog. You took it like a real champ, Brad.

  5. Thom Berry

    Morning, Brad.
    It’s interesting you raise the question of what’s “normal” because that’s the very same question I asked our staff in DHEC late yesterday afternoon when the sample results came back.
    As with so many things in life there’s no simple answer for a simple question. The Saluda, as all rivers in the state, are dynamic. The counts can change literally as quickly as the weather.
    The standard for fecal colonies, which we used in our sampling, is 400. Levels above that may result in problems for people who swallow the river water. A rainfall such as the one we had last night, could easily spike the numbers based on the runoff. That’s why if you look at the numbers during our daily testing of the Saluda, the counts Sunday were subtantially higher than the day before. That’s because of the heavy rain that fell late Saturday night. I suspect much the same would be the case were we to sample today.
    We agree that the upcoming meetings on the future of the three rivers in Columbia will be helpful and enlightening. We’re glad to be part of the process and look forward to it. These discussions will not only highlight the issue of discharges and their impacts to our bodies of water but many other areas including the aging infrastructure of many of the state’s water and wastewater systems and how best to protect the beauty and future of the Broad, Saluda and the Congaree.

  6. notverybright

    Mr. Bery, how about adding to the agenda DHEC’s response in this case? There’s still been no full explanation for how the agency formed an “impression” that the problem was under control, and then waited six more days before doing anything? And then it was only because someone complained about the smell.
    Why the “no comments” in the paper? Shouldn’t the agency be open and accountable? Why is DHEC foot-dragging on an explanation of its apparent complicity in this mess?

  7. Thom Berry

    Glad to respond, Brad.
    There is a lot of information that we know but cannot disclose right now. There’s also a lot of information we still need to develop. This is part of what will be a very thorough investigation of all aspects of the incident, including what the utility did, what we did and to determine exactly what happened.
    This information will become part of what may be an enforcement action we’ll take.
    We wanted to concentrate our efforts initially to make sure the partially treated wastewater that was being discharged was stopped and conditions in the Saluda were back to what would be considered normal for that body of water. Now we’re turning our attention more to the investigative side of things.
    Forgive the pitch but I’ve read in some of the stories where people were on the river during this incident and noticed different or off odors or persistent strong smells. That’s when we would really like to hear from people as we can’t be everywhere at all times. During normal office hours, call our regional office at 896-0620 or after hours call 1-888-418-0125.

  8. notverybright

    Mr. Berry,
    I understand the need to proceed deliberately with a full investigation of the utility. No problem there.
    What I’m not understanding is why DHEC can’t address its own action and inaction. Why can’t it simply lay out now what it did, and when? And why it didn’t go on site or verify that the problem had been fixed? If it had, it seems based on the information publicly available that the problem would have been squelched quickly and without much damage to the river.
    I’m open to the possibility that DHEC did its job here, but the evidence publicly available strongly suggests that it did not. Can you explain why DHEC can’t go ahead right now and at least lay out exactly what it did, why it didn’t act differently, and whether it views its course of action as appropriate?

  9. Thom Berry

    Believe me, nothing would please me more than to lay out everything right now but to protect the investigation, which also involves our actions, I just can’t.
    It frustrates me as much as anyone that we have to appear to be so secretive at times. I also appreciate that some may seize upon that to criticize our staff and me personally with comments and epithets that no one should have to endure. Hey, it’s OK, we’re big boys and girls.
    I don’t want you, Brad or anyone else to accept everything at face value; a little sketicism is not a bad thing. I can assure you though, we will do our job.

  10. notverybright

    Mr. Berry,
    I appreciate the chance for a conversation on these issues. The exchange undermines my argument that DHEC’s too guarded about its own processes and possible shortcomings.
    But still, at this point, we are left with instructions to be patient and assurances that the truth will out.
    Can you at least predict for me when that will occur and in what form?

  11. Brad Warthen

    Gotta say I identify with Thom on one point, where he says, “That’s when we would really like to hear from people as we can’t be everywhere at all times…”
    I wish I had a dime for every time some reader has come on all accusatory with “Why haven’t you written about…,” when the honest answer is, “Because this is the first we’ve heard about it.”
    I say that not to excuse DHEC for not following up on the initial problem it knew about, but just to say that it would very often help if people would share what they knew on the front end.
    It’s funny, but so often folks who are among the newspaper’s biggest critics are the very ones most ready to assume we are omniscient, and if we didn’t write about something, it’s because we were trying to hide it or some such nonsense…

  12. thom Berry

    Please forgive me for what some may see as a flip response but when I ask that same question about length of time for an investigation to our staff, the usual response often is, “long enough to get it right.”
    We don’t put an artibrary timetable on an investigation, much as any agency that has law enforcement or regulatory powers. We know that any enforcement action we take, whether its’ on the civil or criminal side, has to stand up to judicial review. Yes, it tends to make us a little more cautious but all of us as taxpayers should expect that.
    So I wish I could give you a “straight” answer to your question. Right now, we just don’t know.
    BTW, my father is Mr. Berry; I’m Thom.

  13. notverybright

    But Brad, that doesn’t really apply here where DHEC has already said it knew of the problem almost a week before the agency stepped in. They DID know. They (apparently) just didn’t go on site or otherwise ensure that the problem was contained.
    DHEC spokesperson Myrick is quoted in the 7/31 paper as saying that state officials were “under the impression” sewage was being hauled away but learned Tuesday it instead was leaking into a creek that flows into the river. I’m just asking got the meat on those bones. How did DHEC form that impression, and what were the factors that led it not to do something about it?
    I’m not saying DHEC is filled with evil people out to do damage to our environment. What I am suggesting is they’re not nearly vigilant enough. But I’m willing to hold off on a final opinion until Mr. Berry is at liberty to lay it out for us.

  14. notverybright

    Typo correction: “I’m just asking for the meat on those bones.”
    And Thom (your last comment posted while I was typing mine), I’ll drop this and be patient, but I’m hoping you can clarify this for me. Without commenting on the specific facts, can you at least explain to me why DHEC (through Mr. Myrick) can say publicly that it was under an impression that the sewage was being hauled away but can’t be more specific? It’s just a level of specificity on an already-discussed point that I am seeking.

  15. thom Berry

    What we were told on the 23rd was that some maintenence work was going on at the facility. The explanation was plausible and the staffer accepted the explanation and went on with his inspection of the collection lines.
    We then received an odor complaint on the 29th and that’s when we found the situation going on within the plant. All of this has been reported.
    Thanks for being willing to hold off until we can get our work done; that’s all we ask.

  16. thom berry

    Sorry, I missed your last post just as I was typing mine.
    The trucks leaving the facility were hauling sewage that was being taken to another of the utility’s plants for treatment while the maintenence, as they explained to us, was underway.
    Hope this helps a little.

  17. Lee Muller

    IIRC from my Trout Unlimited meetings, there isn’t supposed to be ANY sewerage discharge into the Lower Saluda River.
    All septic tanks were supposed to be removed from around Lake Murray, too, starting in 1975.
    DHEC also said in 1984, that no more well water should be pumped out of Horry County to supply Myrtle Beach development, because it was causing salt water incursion, which was destroying the water supply.
    DHEC has also failed to protect the clean water supplies from the Catawba River. North Carolina towns are tapping the water and selling it to Charlotte, which then dumps its sewerage into the Catawba just above the SC line.

  18. notverybright

    Well, it does help, actually.
    I guess two of the questions that are left to be answered when you’re able are (1) Whether Alpine lied about whether some discharge was still going into the river (understandably not answerable now, and really not even my primary concern); and (2) Whether, when the consequences are this serious, DHEC should take a utility like this at its word or be more active in its monitoring (my focus, since it’s a systemic issue that could be corrected).

  19. Thom Berry

    Sorry, guys; I’ve been away from the office doing a radio talk show and a TV interview about the situation on the Saluda.
    Lee, I’m not sure about whether or not there are supposed to be any discharges directly into the Lower Saluda but I’ll check. The standard for both the state and the EPA is that whatever discharge coming out of the pipe should be at least as clean as the body of water into which it’s going.
    If you know of specific septic tanks on Lake Murray, especialy any that may be feeding directly into the lake, we’d love to know about it. Call our regional office at 896-0620 and let the folks know where.
    I’ll check on the Myrtle Beach situation. I don;t know if theiy’re pulling from wells or a surface water source now.
    Yes, we are very familiar with what’s been happening in Charlotte/Mecklenburg. We do work with our counterparts in Raleigh to protect water coming into our state and the US EPA in Atlanta as well, but as you well know, our authority ends at the state line.
    notverybright…both good questions and points. We’ll be looking into both.

  20. Lee Muller

    Yes, when I say “no discharges”, I mean no discharges which pollute. I once worked for a chemical plant whose discharge water was a good as any tap water in the city nearby, so it actually improved the river into which the discharge flowed.
    At some point, DHEC has to stick its neck out and say, “No more development until and unless the existing drinking water and sewerage treatment is improved, or everyone has to use less water in order to maintain our current levels of total use.

  21. Ralph Hightower

    SC Attorney General, Henry McMaster, filed a lawsuit against North Carolina about the diversion of the Catawba River. If you read The State, you would know about the lawsuit. That is months old news.
    I hope that McMaster is working with DHEC, and also DNR, on the lawsuit since both state agencies have an interest in the rivers and natural resources.

  22. Lee Muller

    I actually have been following the lawsuit, an and the negotiations prior to it, for the past 8 years, in the Charlotte Disturber, and mostly on the Charlotte radio stations, which have much more coverage than any of the papers.
    The drought forced SC to deal with the issue, when we both lost drinking water sources and the Catawba River lost its carrying capacity for sewerage.

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