Water and Wetlands

Rural Drinking Water

Access to safe, affordable and reliable drinking water is a basic human right, indispensable to sustaining healthy livelihoods and maintaining people’s dignity. It is also an increasingly urgent environmental protection and justice issue in South Carolina.
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HaloSan Contamination in Denmark 

Failing water infrastructure is a growing public health hazard in rural areas and impacts water quality for all by requiring increased treatment and thus adding, rather than removing, dangerous toxic chemicals that end up in our land and our bodies.

For 10 years, the city of Denmark used a pesticide called HaloSan to treat one of the city’s groundwater wells. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) approved use of this chemical in 2008 because American National Standards Institute/National Sanitation Foundation deemed it was safe for disinfecting pools. However, the product is not approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to disinfect drinking water.

Although the city stopped using HaloSan in 2018 and shut down the well and the public health impact remains unclear, many in the town of 3,000 people still do not believe the water is safe to drink and fear the long-term harms of the treated water. 

Along with Denmark Cares and another community group, we have assessed the fallout of the HaloSan crisis and are working to improve the stop-gag regulations adopted by DHEC to prevent another HaloSan-type incident. Moreover, we reviewed enforcement of existing regulations in small, low-income and racially diverse communities and, among others, we found that since 2015 at least 48 small water systems in our state have exceeded the action level for lead in drinking water, including a Head Start facility in Edgemoor that serves dozens of children that has exceeded the lead action level 7 times since 2016.

Systemic Problems Call for Systemic Solutions

In light of these recent findings, we welcome the budding bipartisan consensus over the need for major public investment in water infrastructure. In November 2021, Governor McMaster announced his plans for the state to use the $500 million it will receive from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act for significant water infrastructure upgrades in rural communities. President Joe Biden signed the ARPA into law in March to speed up recovery from economic and health impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it is clear that both DHEC and state legislators must also step up their game and do it fast to tackle both long-existing and more recently emerging crises. For instance, DHEC reports a good rate of compliance with existing health-based drinking water requirements, but does not share any information about the location of noncompliant systems or repeat violators. Transparency around water quality violations is key to empower communities with data to build trust and support action.

Moreover, learning from the experience of other states, several reasons exist for why reported violations most likely underestimate public health problems. For example, water systems are self-regulating and they are disincentivized to report violations; at-the-tap testing is only required for a limited set of contaminants; testing methods and practices are often riddled with loopholes, as was identified in the Denmark situation. Last but not least, the contaminants list is sparse, with the last addition made in 1996 and with the EPA most recently failing to add perchlorate, a long-known carcinogenic. 

Which leads us straight to the most troubling development and growing threats to our water and health...

Toxic Sludge in Darlington 

In Darlington County, we are working to correct an egregious case of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFOA and PFOS) contamination. These so-called “forever chemicals” are linked to cancer, kidney disease and other health issues, and are an emerging source of water pollution all over South Carolina, and the country as a whole.  

In Darlington, dozens of residents have found their private wells contaminated with the chemicals in the sludge from the former Galey and Lord textile plant, which was sprayed onto surrounding farmland. The Society Hill-based plant, which was abandoned in 2016 and never remediated or cleaned, is now a proposed Superfund site.  

Meanwhile, contamination continues to spread, the community's health problems are worsening, and national and state regulators have yet to take discernible action. 

“It is extremely alarming to me,’’ staff attorney Ben Cunningham told The State newspaper about the situation in November 2021. “It’s another example of how flawed the drinking water issue is in South Carolina and how we have a lot of work to do to provide everybody with good drinking water.’’

Along with our conservation partners, we have been advocating for a resolution requiring DHEC to set formal standards for PFAS monitoring, but the draft approved by the senate Medical Affairs subcommittee in December 2021 only prescribes more studies about the problem, as The State reported.

Moreover, application of sewer and industrial sludge remains a common and widespread practice across the state, without any additional precaution being considered to prevent more PFAS and related contamination emergencies from occurring. 

Safe Water for All or for No One

Much of our nation's water infrastructure is no longer up to the task, with pipes, water tanks, septic tanks and treatment facilities well past their intended life-span. Climate change, water affordability challenges and cumulative toxic exposure further compound a problem that disproportionately affects low-income communities and people of color.

As society at large catches up with the reality lived by the many “Denmarks” and “Darlingtons” across the state, SCELP is focusing on local and state-wide actions to improve our regulatory system to better protect our water, our communities and public health.

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