It’s too bad that two environmental groups felt they had no choice but to go to court to force the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to consider how cumulative septic tank permits can harm water quality and environmental habitats along our coast. We already have abundant proof of the damage they can do.
But that’s what Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League felt compelled to do last month, and we hope they are successful. An even better solution would be for local governments and state lawmakers to intervene and address these concerns while simultaneously urging DHEC to change its approach to handing out permits for new septic systems.
Currently, DHEC considers septic permits on a case-by-case basis and doesn’t ask whether new residential septic tank permits in our eight coastal counties are consistent with the state’s Coastal Management Program. If the question were asked, the answer would be quite clear: They are not. One only needs to ask those familiar with efforts to clean up James Island and Shem creeks — efforts mainly focused on eliminating aging, failing septic tanks that are the greatest source of pollution there. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because while the state permits septic systems, there are no requirements to inspect or maintain them once they’re installed. Even when septic systems are well-maintained, they can fail if the water table rises past a certain point. High groundwater can carry the resulting contaminants to rivers and marshes, a problem that’s expected to grow more acute as sea levels rise.