September 7, 2023

Environmental groups go to court seeking immediate action on septic tanks

CHARLESTON, SC – On Friday, September 8, a pair of environmental organizations will ask a court to prevent the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) from issuing septic permits in large, dense developments along the coast until the court has an opportunity to rule on the merits of their case.

Along the South Carolina coast, there are more and more instances of septic-dependent developments — with densely-clustered individual septic tanks — being used as a workaround to build suburban neighborhoods in rural and ecologically sensitive areas, posing threats to those communities and environments.

Small individual septic systems are a very reasonable option for many residents living in rural areas if systems are properly located and well-maintained. However, dense septic-dependent developments pose serious dangers to water quality, aquatic life and human health. As the population of South Carolina continues to grow and development creeps into sensitive areas, enacting measures to protect waterways and communities is even more critical.

Friday’s hearing comes after the South Carolina Environmental Law Project filed a declaratory judgment action on behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League in November of 2022, asking the Charleston County Circuit Court to rule that DHEC has a statutory obligation to review all septic tank applications in the coastal zone for consistency with the State’s Coastal Management Program. The groups are now seeking 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 important issue is resolved. The goal of this request is to stop irreparable harm stemming from the issuance of individual septic system permits in large, dense developments.

“South Carolina’s septic tank regulations simply haven’t kept pace with the forces shaping our coastal environments,” said Riley Egger, Land, Water, & Wildlife Program Director for the Coastal Conservation League. “Without regulations that consider the unique realities of the coastal zone, we’re putting our water quality and coastal resiliency at risk.”

In the eight coastal counties, DHEC does not review individual, residential septic tank permits for consistency with the state’s Coastal Management Program — regardless of whether they are part of a larger cluster of septic systems — despite applying these policies to almost every other type of state or federal permit in the coastal zone. This lack of review means the potential environmental risk to the surrounding area from failing septic tanks is not considered by DHEC and thus is not disclosed to the public.

"The fact that DHEC has never considered the harmful cumulative impacts of numerous unregulated and unmaintained septic systems on our creeks, estuaries and rivers should be alarming to anyone who enjoys fishing, swimming or recreating in these public waters,” said Leslie Lenhardt, Senior Managing Attorney at SCELP. “We are hopeful that the Court will agree and prevent further septic-dependent development until DHEC starts considering such impacts."

The November complaint also asks the court to order DHEC to publicly notice all septic system applications, ensuring that the public is aware of proposed systems. This would promote greater transparency, public involvement and ensure that agency decisions with the potential to impact the environment are not being made behind closed doors.

According to DHEC, ten to thirty percent of septic systems fail to work properly in an average year. These malfunctioning septic systems harm our waterways, wildlife and surrounding habitats and adversely impact the public’s ability to safely enjoy the state’s waters for recreation, shellfish harvesting and more.

“People have a right to use and enjoy their waterways for fishing and swimming without risking their health,” said Andrew Wunderley, Charleston’s Waterkeeper. “DHEC needs to step up to the plate and do all it can to make sure septic tanks don’t pollute our coastal zone waterways.”

Until DHEC fully considers all the environmental impacts of septic tanks, especially in large number and in ecologically delicate coastal areas, septic systems will continue to present risks to the quality of life for our communities and surrounding environment.



Leslie Lenhardt, Senior Managing Attorney
South Carolina Environmental Law Project, (843) 527-0078

Andrew Wunderley, Executive Director
Charleston Waterkeeper, (843) 906-7073

Lily Abromeit, Communications Director
Coastal Conservation League, (785) 766-5343

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Environmental groups go to court seeking immediate action on septic tanks

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