The dirty hidden secret of the coast.

John Sperry and Mary Edna Fraser swim in the murky water of the creek behind their home in Charleston County on April 13, 2023. Henry Taylor/Staff
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Amid growth and lax rules, a menace beneath lawns threatens SC waterways and health.

By John Ramsey jr*****@po************.com
05/05/2023, 11:00 AM
From her dock overlooking James Island Creek, Mary Edna Fraser has painted this stretch of water at sunrise and sunset and every hour in between, capturing the subtle changes in lighting and ripples on the surface. A low-hanging live oak limb serves as her easel.
The scene looks different than when she and her husband moved here more than 30 years ago, just before Hurricane Hugo. Development drove away the egrets that once nested nearby. The water keeps rising. And the oyster bed on the opposite bank is rapidly shrinking.
But it’s what she can’t see that scares her.

The creek has become a toilet, almost always teeming with germs found in feces.
Researchers who’ve studied the problem say the few hundred septic tanks on James Island — some of them right along the creek — are likely a major culprit. And it’s not an isolated problem.
The waters of James Island Creek are among more than 100 recreational and fishing waters in the coastal region flagged by the state as impaired because they’re too often polluted by fecal bacteria. Another 115 oyster beds are on the list. Tests last year in Charleston County, where dozens of the impaired waters are located, also revealed strains of tuberculosis, staph and cholera.
A Post and Courier analysis of thousands of septic tank and water quality records shows South Carolina’s housing boom over the last decade has brought with it a surge in septic tanks in coastal counties. At the same time, a growing number of waters in the region are testing positive for fecal coliform, E. coli or enterococcus.
The evidence points to an often silent, odorless problem science is just beginning to understand: Climate change is undermining septic tanks from below.

Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley is among a growing chorus of scientists and environmentalists warning that leaky septic tanks could have a devastating effect on public health, seafood and tourism, a $29 billion industry in South Carolina. But fixing the problem will likely cost millions as well, presenting a quandary for officials as the pollution grows worse.
Wunderley’s group has been using Fraser’s James Island dock to test waters in the creek for fecal bacteria for the past 10 years. Testing started not long after Fraser reported skin rashes, ear infections and other symptoms she was sure were linked to something in the water. The timing always coincided with days she swam.
Of the 248 tests performed by Charleston Waterkeeper, 210 exceeded the safe limits for swimming. In one out of every four tests, it was at least five times higher.
Wunderley also oversees the local testing program that reports near-constant fecal contamination in Mount Pleasant’s Shem Creek and Filbin Creek in North Charleston. As the group began investigating there and on James Island, they quickly confirmed that rainfall was causing a spike in bacteria counts. But the most polluted watersheds nearly always had one other factor in common as well: numerous septic tanks.
“It’s not just that you’re risking people getting sick and public health, but you’re also risking the very thing that brings people to this area,” said Wunderley, whose group is among those suing the state over its septic tank policies. “If you can’t swim off the neighborhood dock, you can’t catch crabs, you can’t go pick oysters, you can’t fish safely, you can’t paddle down Shem Creek without getting sick, at that point, what is Charleston?”

The Post and Courier’s analysis shows there is growing reason for such concerns. Among other things, the newspaper found:

  • The number of waters the state has designated as impaired by fecal contamination grew by 50 percent in the past decade. More than half of those — creeks, rivers and oyster habitats — are in coastal counties. Leading the pack is Charleston.
  • The number of septic tank applications in South Carolina more than doubled from 2010 to 2022, steadily rising from 8,000 to more than 16,000. In Charleston County, they nearly quadrupled. Coastal region counties, where the state saw nearly half of its growth over the past decade, account for one in every five of the 148,000 applications during that time.
  • State regulators don’t track septic failures. They don’t even know how many tanks the state has. No one has taken an official count of septic tanks in South Carolina since the 1990 census, when roughly 40 percent of households reported having one.
  • South Carolina’s method of handling of septic tank failures leaves a blind spot for the odorless underground pollution making its way to waters near the coast. The only time the state knows a septic tank might be failing is when someone complains after noticing a smell in the yard or a mess in the house. So the 8,000 complaints the state received over the past decade are most common in the Upstate and suburbs of Columbia, making Charleston seem clean by comparison. The water here tells a different story.

    Rob Young, a professor at Western Carolina University who studies coastal communities, said the newspaper’s findings line up with what he’d expect to see from chronic, invisible underground septic tank failures. He calls them “the dirty hidden little secret of the coast.” But more research would be necessary to pinpoint how much of the blame lies with septic tanks versus other forms of pollution that spike with increased development.
    “I really worry about the impact of long-term sea level rise on septic systems,” Young said. “It’s a much more silent problem, and honestly I don’t think we have done the science to understand the level of failure and what’s really ending up in our surface waters from these failing systems.”
    Scientists and environmentalists studying the issue say the findings demand further research and better state oversight. While no state is equipped to deal with the potential magnitude of the problem, South Carolina’s rules make it especially vulnerable.
    A study published in October warned that coastal communities in the Carolinas face growing risks from septic tank pollution triggered by climate change and rising sea levels.
    Groundwater, which flows beneath the Earth’s surface, is being pushed higher near the coast by rising sea levels. It can rise for weeks at a time after storms, research has shown. That shrinks the time that wastewater from septic tanks is treated. In some cases, septic tanks are sitting in the groundwater, dispersing untreated waste to the nearest stream or lake. Septic tanks in low-lying areas near bodies of water are most at risk, a description that applies to much of the Lowcountry.

    A 2015 study in Michigan that used tracers to link the bacteria directly back to humans found the No. 1 predictor for fecal pollution in dozens of waterways was the density of septic tanks nearby. But that kind of direct evidence doesn’t exist in South Carolina, in large part because of the state’s hands-off approach.
    In the Southeast, where septic tanks are most common, South Carolina has the weakest set of rules for installing and maintaining them. Environmental groups are suing the state Department of Health and Environmental Control in an effort to force it to consider coastal vulnerabilities when approving septic tanks, the way it does with other permits. On April 28, The Waterkeeper, the Coastal Conservation League and the S.C. Environmental Law Project asked a judge to ban large-scale housing development using septic tanks along the coast until the lawsuit is resolved.
    Leslie Lenhardt, a lawyer for SCELP, said James Island is a perfect example of septic tanks seeping into nearby waterways.
    “It’s a difficult question to handle, but we certainly believe DHEC is not doing their job in terms of evaluating these things in light of climate change, sea level rise, all of these issues that are making it more critical to look closely,” she said.
    The man who oversees DHEC’s septic tanks program said the state makes sure new septic tanks comply with state standards and can operate effectively where they’re installed. But he cast doubt on the idea of widespread underground failures near the coast, calling it a “broad, shotgun-blast accusation.”

    Out of sight, out of mind
    Septic tanks have long been the solution for rural homes where public water and sewer lines don’t extend. By some estimates, as many as half of homes in the Carolinas still rely on septic tanks.
    Invented in France in 1860, the septic tank’s genius lies in its simplicity. There are newer, more advanced systems, but the vast majority in use are still essentially the same old technology.
    Pipes connect the toilet, sinks and showers to the septic tank, a sealed underground holding cell with a drain pipe near the top of the other side. In the tank, solids become liquids, sludge drops to the bottom and a layer of scum rises to the top. It operates when nearly full, with each flush pushing out water into a drain field through a series of long, perforated pipes in a trench surrounded by gravel.
    Dirty water, partially cleaned by bacteria in the tank, slowly seeps out of those holes into the soil. At that point, the earth takes over, essentially filtering out the bacteria and viruses before they come in contact with groundwater below.

    But if the ground is too soggy, or the layer of dirt between the drain field and groundwater isn’t thick enough, the process breaks down. That’s because rising sea levels and more intense rainfall near the coast fueled by climate change cause spikes in the groundwater levels. After a big storm, groundwater can remain at elevated levels for up to 100 days, research along the North Carolina coast found.
    “These systems are going to be under water for a really long time possibly. And we’ve seen that in recent years.” said Jared Bowden, a climate modeler at North Carolina State University. In some instances, the rising water pushes wastewater back into homes.
    If the soil is too soggy to treat the waste, the distance it has to travel underground before arriving at a creek can also impact how dirty the water is. On James Island and the South Carolina coast, that distance usually isn’t far.
    Figuring out which tanks are failing, and where they’re located, is a task the state isn’t equipped to handle. It destroys septic tank permits after five years and has no requirements for inspections or repairs.
    Once you have a septic tank, it’s your own personal sewage plant, and you’re on the hook to make sure it’s working.

    In South Carolina, the layer of soil between the septic tank and groundwater has to be at least 6 inches thick.
    That is far less than other places across the Southeast, said Jenny Brennan a lawyer at the Southern Environmental Law Center who researched septic tank regulations in several states.
    Alabama and Georgia require 24 inches. In most of North Carolina, the requirement is 12 inches, but it’s 18 inches near the coast.
    Alabama also bans septic tanks in areas prone to flooding and on lots smaller than an acre.
    South Carolina’s rules leave little room for rising waters.

    “The way we’ve been thinking about these has to change to match the new conditions that we’re experiencing,” Brennan said.
    Before a septic tank can be installed in South Carolina, the land has to pass what’s known as a perc test to make sure the ground isn’t too saturated. It measures how quickly water poured into a hole in the ground will drain out of it. But it only captures a point in time, with no way to account for tidal changes or rainy conditions that can push groundwaters higher.
    In Beaufort County, monitoring wells last year found that groundwater levels rose by more than 3 feet after heavy rains, putting them close enough to the surface to inundate septic tanks in some areas. The tests weren’t conducted directly beside any septic tanks, but their results were troubling.
    Underground water levels in some spots rose high enough to be in contact with septic tanks across large swaths of the county, said Alicia Wilson, a hydrogeology professor at the University of South Carolina. Portions of the May River in Bluffton have been closed for oyster harvesting since 2009 because of fecal bacteria.
    Groundwater also responds to sea level rise, but it’s not clear precisely how much.

    Sea levels in Charleston have risen by 10 inches since 1950, with an acceleration to 1 inch every two years since 2010. Older homes near the water that had enough dry soil for a working septic tank decades ago wouldn’t pass a soil test today, experts said. Some areas today can only pass a soil test if it’s taken at low tide.
    In Rodanthe, N.C., houses are falling into the ocean in one of the most extreme East Coast examples of climate change. Septic tanks sometimes float out into the surf and burst. Closer to home, large hurricanes have in some cases left septic tanks exposed in the sand at Folly Beach and Edisto.
    Wilson has been traveling the East Coast this spring to speak at universities about rising groundwaters and her ongoing work. From Rhode Island to Florida, she said, academic researchers are trying to get a handle on how climate change impacts underground water tables. Ideally, she said, research could lead to the equivalent of flood maps for groundwater risks associated with climate change.
    “Everybody’s concerned about this. Everybody’s noticed the surface flooding, that’s been obvious for decades,” Wilson said. “But this (undergound) water thing, that’s a hot new topic all the way up and down.”
    Sticker Shock

    Solutions to the problem don’t come cheap. Plans to connect 120,000 homes in South Florida to sewer lines in Miami-Dade County will cost an estimated $4 billion and take years to complete. Homeowners will likely have to pay $7,500 or more to connect to the sewer lines.
    Last month,South Carolina’s Rural Infrastructure Authority announced more than $600 million in grants for 90 projects aimed at aging wastewater systems across the state as part of a larger package that also includes public water systems. The money, designated from federal pandemic relief funds, is for a mix of sewer system upgrades and expansions. About 20 percent of the wastewater money is headed to coastal counties.
    Around Mount Pleasant, efforts to run public sewer lines to residents in the Snowden community, where failing septic tanks sometimes back up into their homes, have dragged on for more than two decades, a casualty of cost and politics. The first round of work to connect homes cost about $5 million more than a decade ago. Connecting the rest is expected to be even more expensive. The same is true along Shem Creek, where plans to eliminate surrounding septic tanks remain years from completion. The state recently announced $13 million in grants to help pay for both projects, in addition to $4 million previously set aside. Local grants will help homeowners pay the $9,000 connection fee.
    Shem Creek is among the Lowcountry’s most popular spots for kayakers and paddleboarders to spend a day with the dolphins. Runoff from septic tanks and Mount Pleasant’s building boom make it every bit as disgusting as James Island Creek. Shem Creek is dirtiest farthest from the harbor. Four of every five tests at the upper end of Shem Creek showed unsafe levels of fecal bacteria over the past decade, with a third of the results at least five times higher than safe levels.
    Take the boat landing where the creek is surrounded by bars and restaurants with views of downtown Charleston across the harbor. Fecal contamination showed up in two out of every five tests taken there. At Shem Creek Park, close to the mouth of the harbor, contamination reached unsafe levels in one out of every five tests.

    On James Island, an $8 million state grant announced in April will cover part of the cost to connect 190 homes to sewer lines, a process that will take years and has an estimated price tag of $55,000 per home.
    David Vaughan, who oversees septic tanks and rabies prevention at DHEC, said his staff has been overwhelmed as tank applications arrive at a record pace and employee turnover hovers above 20 percent. At the beginning of April, DHEC had a backlog of 700 permits and the wait time ranged from a month to almost three.
    When the state learns of a septic tank failure, it requires the owner to fix it. He said the initial permitting process makes sure septic tanks are properly installed in soils that can handle them.
    But the state isn’t looking for failures. It’s responding to complaints. And its rules aren’t equipped to consider the pressures causing groundwaters to rise near the coast. State law directs DHEC to “abate obnoxious and offensive odors” from septic tanks. Underground failures emit no odors.
    Vaughan said coming up with a total number of septic tanks in South Carolina is a figure, “I don’t think we could ever get the answer to.”

    He noted that last year DHEC increased the required distance between coastal marshlands and septic tanks. But he declined to say whether the situation at James Island Creek or The Post and Courier’s data analysis merited further investigation. He noted the water quality data couldn’t rule out things like stormwater, livestock or pets as the main causes of poop in the water.
    A network of doggie bag stations hasn’t put a dent in pollution levels on James Island, which has no livestock farms. Across the state, livestock numbers have dwindled over the past decade, with 30 percent fewer cattle and more than 10 percent fewer hogs.
    “While reports that you’re seeing have identified septic tanks, we don’t have a report saying these specific ones here are doing this.” Vaughan said. “Trying to pinpoint a failing septic tank is really like just throwing a dart at the wall with a blindfold on.”
    Young, the coastal scientist, said Vaughan’s approach shows the shortcomings in how the state thinks about septic tanks failures. If the tank backs up into the house or leaks into the yard, that can be handled on a one-by-one basis. But inundation from below is a regional problem, he said.
    “You can’t deal with this a parcel at a time. Or you shouldn’t. And you especially shouldn’t for future permits,” Young said. “I would guess that 98 percent of the failures in the coastal zone, it’s not something you’re going to see.”

    A lot of uncertainty remains around the issue, said Jane Harrison, one of the authors of a 2022 study on climate change and septic tanks in the coastal Carolinas. The best strategy would first target the tanks causing the most pollution, but there’s no easy way to identify them.
    The costs of doing nothing are high, in addition to the human health and seafood risks. A study in Cape Cod, Mass., found beaches with no history of water-quality closures are more than twice as valuable to the local economies, while another showed home prices rose for waterfront properties along the Chesapeake Bay from Virginia up to Delaware after efforts to clean up the water.
    South Carolina had to temporarily close beaches 26 times in 2021, according to a report published last year by DHEC. Another 16 had long-term advisories warning of persistent fecal bacteria exposure. Over the past decade, about 1 in 12 tests at beaches monitored by the state had unsafe levels of fecal bacteria. Those numbers spike in years with more rainfall.
    “Out of sight, out of mind, not worried about it, not talking about it, not knowing about it isn’t making us very resilient,” said Harrison, a coastal economics specialist with North Carolina Sea Grant. “Ultimately, this isn’t just one town or one city’s issue.”
    Lawmakers in this year’s session considered two bills regarding septic tanks. Both ultimately failed. One would have barred localities from forcing people to agree to be annexed in exchange for sewer line extensions. The other originally had two aims: reducing the backlog of permits causing delays for developers and barring DHEC from forcing property owners to hook up to nearby sewer lines after their septic tanks fail.

    Vaughan said he hopes there’s an end in sight to the increased reliance on septic tanks, but that depends on the economy and the housing market.
    A building boom
    Growth in coastal counties is outpacing the reach of pubic sewer lines. That explains why, in Charleston County, applications for septic tanks steadily rose from 250 a year in 2010 to nearly 1,000 last year.
    Up and down the coast, large suburban-style developments are popping up, with dozens or hundreds of homes and septic tanks clustered together.
    “They’re putting septic tanks in the wettest areas I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Roger Herrington, who’s been installing and repairing septic tanks in Horry County for three decades. “They’re crowding too many people in too small of an area. When you have 10 or 15 or 20 houses in a row, the ground never gets a break.”

    Herrington said he uses a bigger tank and tries to provide a little extra room in the soil to keep systems from failing. Herrington says ultra-shallow septic systems engineered to work closer to the surface fare better near the coast. The state should also consider keeping track of whose installations are failing most frequently, he said.
    Large developments near the coast have faced opposition from environmental groups who say the state is failing to protect coastal waters from septic tank pollution.
    Alabama requires homes on septic tanks to be built on lots no smaller than an acre, and Tennessee has an extra set of rules for large subdivisions. Virginia is in the process of updating its septic tank laws to require climate change to be a factor in the approval process.
    In South Carolina, each septic tank is considered individually, with no regard for how many others will be nearby.
    Consider the situation in the northern Charleston County town of Awendaw, situated between a national forest and Cape Romain, a seaside wilderness that’s home to hundreds of species of birds and fish. The town hosts an annual oyster roast, a blue crab festival and a nature festival.

    From its inception in 1992 until 2009, it had the same mayor, who was elected without opposition. In 2009, William Alston’s platform included running sewer lines through Awendaw to deal with failing septic tanks. He lost to a candidate who preferred repairing septic tanks, in part over fears that sewer lines would bring unchecked suburban-style development that could ruin Awendaw’s rural character and add more pollution to its waters.
    The sewer plan stopped, keeping large businesses and offices away. But suburban development, in the form of large-scale housing communities, came anyway. Last year, the town signed off on more than 400 homes with septic tanks near the road leading to Cape Romain.
    That subdivision is among half a dozen planned in Charleston County or along the Ashley River just outside its borders that worry environmental groups. Combined, the plans call for nearly 1,800 new houses, all using septic tanks.
    Another developer recently asked Awendaw to rezone 60 acres to allow his company to build more than 60 homes on half-acre lots. The houses would connect to the town’s water service but have septic tanks in each yard. Wetlands run through the middle of the site, which isn’t accessible by any street.
    Town planners asked him to come back with a more detailed plan that shows where the homes and streets would be located. None raised concerns about septic tanks.

    “We’ve already increased the size of Awendaw by 40 percent from the things that have been approved in this past year,” Susan Cox, an Awendaw resident, told town planners during a meeting packed with residents opposed to the new development. “As all of the environmental people will tell you, it isn’t just about the proximity to the waterways for the septic tanks. It is the total number of septic tanks that you allow in this area that will affect what happens with the health of our waterways.”
    ‘An invisible, dangerous reality’
    Meanwhile on James Island, a plan to get rid of nearly 400 septic tanks believed to be contributing to the nasty conditions in parts of the creek is still in its early stages.
    Fraser and her husband, pediatrician John Sperry, disconnected their backyard septic tank and installed one farther from the creek after the water tests confirmed they’d been swimming in poop. They get it pumped regularly. But that’s one septic tank in an area with about 400. They can’t be sure it’s never contributing to the problem, but their options are limited as they wait for sewer lines to come through the neighborhood.
    It’s been a decade since they hosted a high-tide party — up to 20 of their children’s friends would come swim and play all day in the creek.

    Fraser, an environmental activist, tried to raise the alarm with local, state and federal officials back then, when the water was making her sick.
    “Not a single group of our environmental protectors took it to heart,” she said.
    No one except the nonprofit Charleston Waterkeeper, which agreed to test the waters off her dock. Wunderley said he’d noticed a gap in state testing that was allowing pollution around Charleston to go unchecked.
    The state hadn’t sampled water quality in Shem Creek, one of the most popular recreational water bodies in Charleston, for two years. And when the state did test, it only ran them six times a year, which isn’t enough to determine the water quality. He said the state’s’ stance amounted to assuming the water was safe.
    Based on what data, he thought. Now his team partners with College of Charleston to test local waters every Wednesday from May through October. They immediately noticed that rainfall was causing bacteria levels to skyrocket.

    James Island is working to identify which septic tanks are causing the worst problems. Folly Beach is also working to solve its persistent problems. Both towns are requiring regular inspections and pumpouts.
    But real solutions are likely years and millions of dollars away.
    After COVID-19 arrived, people flocked to James Island Creek for the outdoor isolation. People still swim, kayak and fish there.
    Fraser remembers watching and wondering how many of them knew what was in the water.
    “It’s an invisible, dangerous reality,” Fraser said.

    But sometimes, the creek is a temptation too great to resist. If it hasn’t rained in the past week, the only conditions that seem to cause the bacteria levels to dip, Fraser and Sperry go swimming.
    She wears a hat as a reminder not to submerge her head. And as soon as Fraser leaves the water she’s spent decades admiring, she goes inside to wash it off.
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