The General Assembly is back in session Tuesday and one piece of legislation that is likely to pass out this week is a “three-strike” law for towns and utilities that run municipal or rural sewer systems.
Under the bill, any wastewater utility that has three spills of 5,000 gallons within a 12-month period (per every 100 miles of pipe) would have to undergo a thorough audit by the state’s environmental agency. The audit would then order a plan to minimize any future spills.
Under current law, utilities only have to report spills; there is no penalty. “We wanted to stop chronic spills from occurring and entering our waterways and drinking water,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts (R-Laurens), who sponsored the bill.
The language was a compromise between conservation groups and the utilities. “The majority of wastewater treatment facilities are doing a good job and do not have repeated spills,” said Debbie Parker, program director of the Conservation Voters of South Carolina, “But there are a handful, unfortunately, who have.”
According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control’s website, 35 spills of 5,000 gallons or more have occurred in South Carolina over the past six months. However, the environmental group Upstate Forever says most of those spills happen to about 10 percent of the state’s utilities. More than half of the state’s 531 municipal waste systems have not had problems, the group says.
“Everybody thinks that this would actually attack the smaller municipalities,” Pitts said, “But the actual violators that commit the continual problems are the big boys.”
Patrick Jackson is executive vice president of the South Carolina Rural Water Association, a nonprofit group that helps small utilities set up their sewer systems. He says the biggest problem is that many municipal utilities lack the funding to upgrade their sewage system.
“Some of these systems were installed fifty-plus years ago,” Jackson said, “You’re trying to meet 2012 regulations with 1920s infrastructure. It makes it difficult.”
According to DHEC, two of the biggest spills since last summer (each about 380,000 gallons) occurred in Summerville. The cities of Columbia, Florence, and Laurens also have chronic wastewater problems.
The bill also requires the utilities to notify the public of any spills that exceed 5,000 gallons.
“Unfortunately, I think… the public is unaware of the numbers of water bodies in South Carolina that are polluted,” Parker said, “And a lot of times, people will fish and go swimming in polluted waters and not even realize it.”
The bill has had relatively little opposition in either the House (where it passed unanimously) or the Senate (where it passed 36-2). It could head to the governor’s desk before the end of the week.