Coastal Management

Coastal Septic Management

South Carolina’s coastal areas are experiencing increased development pressures, particularly in rural areas, where dense clusters of conventional septic tank systems are often chosen by developers because of lack of access to sewer and low cost. Currently, DHEC does not review septic tank permits for consistency with the Coastal Management Program when they are placed in the coastal zone – despite applying these policies to almost every other type of state environmental permit.
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Taking Action to Prevent Septic Pollution

South Carolina’s coast is experiencing increasing development pressures, particularly in rural areas outside of established utility services. In these areas, dense clusters of conventional septic systems are often installed by developers for household wastewater treatment due to low initial development costs and the ease of obtaining septic permits.

But septic systems can pose dangers to the environment and human health, particularly when densely or improperly placed near coastal waters. Even well-maintained tanks can leak untreated human waste and other harmful pollutants into nearby waterbodies if geological and hydrological conditions are not suitable for onsite wastewater treatment. When septic tanks are not properly maintained or installed in high-density developments, these risks are even greater.

Graphics from Surfrider Foundation

Currently, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) does not review individual, residential septic tank permits for consistency with the state’s Coastal Management Program when they are placed in the coastal zone – which is comprised of the state’s eight coastal counties – despite applying these policies to almost every other type of state or federal permit.

On behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper and Coastal Conservation League, we filed a declaratory judgment action against DHEC on November 10, 2022. This declaratory judgment action asks the court to rule as a matter of law that DHEC is required to fulfill its statutory obligation to review all state and federal permits for consistency with the state's coastal management program, and to order that that permits for individual septic systems are no exception. We are also asking the court to order DHEC to publicly notice all septic system applications and permits in order to promote transparency and ensure that agency decisions with broad, long-term impacts are not being made behind closed doors.

On April 28, 2023, the groups filed a separate preliminary injunction request that seeks to prevent DHEC from issuing any more septic tank permits along the coast that are part of a Larger Common Plan of Development or within 200 feet of a Water of the State until this case is resolved. The goal of this request is to stop irreparable harm stemming from the issuing of individual septic system permits in large, dense developments.

If we want to have a chance at adapting to sea level rise along the coast, we must dramatically escalate the priority of improving our sewer and septic systems and their regulation.

South Carolina law does not require property owners to have existing systems inspected or maintained, which can lead to both short- and long-term environmental problems. In Charleston, a recent study of the routinely impaired waters of the James Island Creek Watershed examined the correlation between two clusters of septic systems - an estimated 181 densely placed septic tanks near the Simpson Creek tributary, and another cluster of approximately 27 septic tanks adjacent to James Island Creek - and water quality data from two sampling locations, collected by Charleston Waterkeeper over the course of eight years, between 2013 and 2020. That study and associated Watershed Management Plan concluded that septic systems had a high likelihood of being a major source of the bacteria Enterococci in the waters of James Island Creek.

Spotlight on Awendaw Sprawl

Since the Spring of 2022, we kept a close eye on suburban sprawl in Awendaw, where Planning Commission approved a 204-house residential subdivision on a 148-acre parcel known as the “White Tract,” which is adjacent to Bulls Bay and within the Congressionally authorized boundaries of the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge. In May, the Town voted to approve development of another large mixed-use subdivision (“Romain Bay Preserve”) on 184 acres near Doar Road and Highway 17, featuring 276 residential units as well as commercial spaces.

These projects were particularly concerning, not just because of the extensive construction, land clearing, and road building they will require, but because of long-term consequences of environmental impacts unique to this area. If development proceeds according to the developers’ plans, more than 400 septic tanks will be installed. Pollution from septic tank failure is a serious environmental problem in our State due to weak or non-existent regulation of septic tank design, installation, and maintenance. The Town of Awendaw currently has no septic management plan. As we have seen in other coastal communities such as Shem Creek and James Island, leaching of contaminants from failing septic tanks has polluted and degraded otherwise healthy creeks and waterway, putting health and the environment at risk. The risk of septic tank pollution is further exacerbated by sea level rise, flooding, and extreme weather events, all of which are only expected to increase in the future.

Case Update

Unfortunately, the court recently denied our preliminary injunction, but given the gravity of the current situation we have asked the court to reconsider...

In early January, DHEC approved forty-four septic tank permits for the White Tract Development in Awendaw, and more are on the way. As part of a proposed development, over 200 single-family homes are slated to be built in this sensitive area–some on 3/10th of an acre - all relying on individual septic tanks. Our clients have now also appealed the DHEC staff decision to issue the 44 individual septic tank permits for the White Tract Development and have requested DHEC’s Board do a final review. More to come soon on this pressing update!

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