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.

Petition for Rule-Making

On March 22, 2022, we filed an expansive Petition for Rule-Making asking DHEC to close significant gaps in state water regulations that have exposed residents from Denmark, Darlington, Summerton and other underserved communities across South Carolina to unsafe drinking water.

The Petition was filed on behalf of Denmark Cares, Denmark Citizens for Safe Water, Darlington County resident Kim Weatherford, Waccamaw Indian People vice chief Cheryl M. Cail, Sumter resident Lakisha Wade, Summerton resident Ken Harvin, the Gullah Geechee Chamber of Commerce and South Carolina Interfaith Power & Light.

Among the requests in the Petition are the following:

Lead and Copper Improvements. DHEC should promptly and fully implement the EPA’s new Lead and Copper Rule to decrease the amount of lead and copper in drinking water and protect residents from exposure to the harmful chemicals. Since 2015, at least 48 small water systems in the state have exceeded the action level for lead in drinking water, including the communities of Belton, Bowman, Ehrhardt, Honea Path and Edgemoor.  

FIFRA Registration for Water Treatment Chemicals. DHEC should close the gap in its regulations that allowed drinking water in Denmark to be treated with Halosan, which was not properly registered under Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), as required by the EPA.  

Water Storage Tank Inspections. DHEC should require regular inspection of the interior of water storage tanks and to mandate cleaning when sludge or contaminants are found to avoid the disturbing situation that befell residents of Summerton, where sludge collected in a large water storage tank and was not cleaned at least 12 years.

Industrial Sludge Pollutant and Monitoring Update. DHEC should limit the pathways for PFAS chemicals to endanger human health and contaminate drinking water and crops to avoid future instances like in Darlington County, where these “forever chemicals” tainted groundwater wells near fertilized fields.

It is our hope that DHEC will seize this opportunity to improve drinking water in rural areas and throughout the State. South Carolinians should be provided with drinking water that is consistently clean no matter where they live. Granting this Petition will move us closer to that goal.

Scroll to the bottom to download a copy of our Petition and DHEC response.

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