Charleston Waterkeeper is an organization that regularly takes water samples of 20 swimming hotspots to monitor bacteria levels | Credit: Ruta Smith file photo

Troubled waters

One year after the Charleston City Paper’s award-winning story on extremely high levels of bacteria in three Charleston creeks, nothing much has changed.

Like last summer, Filbin Creek in North Charleston, part of Shem Creek in Mount Pleasant and at Ellis Creek near Folly Road on James Island have had levels of dangerous bacteria that have been off the charts.

Filbin Creek — located near a decades-old paper mill scheduled to shut down this week — delivered an Aug. 2 reading for Charleston Waterkeeper that was 240 times the state’s water quality standard. Two weeks later, the bacteria levels calmed but were still 16 times what is thought to be safe for swimming.

Two other monitoring stations remain challenged, too. The James Island Creek 2 monitoring station failed water quality tests three out of four times. Shem Creek 3 near the Mill Street landing had a slightly higher failure rate this year — 88% of tests were higher than the standard — compared to 80% last year.

At 17 other sites around the county, failure rates generally were low and about the same as last year, with six passing every week and the others periodically failing, which analysts often attribute to rainfall near the testing time that can wash pollutants into streams.

The bacterial culprit

The pollutant that Charleston Waterkeeper tests for is called enterococcus (fecal) bacteria, “a large biological classification of bacteria that, if ingested, cause all sorts of gastrointestinal problems,” according to the 2022 story.

So why hasn’t Charleston seen improvements? It’s in part due to the way water travels to the ocean, through the bodies of animals or through the soil.

In the past, Adopt-A-Stream volunteer Rebecca Fanning noted, precipitation would land on leaves or branches and trickle down to the soil. But now, with increased industrial development and large-scale population growth, “impervious surfaces” such as concrete and asphalt redirect the motion of water, said Robby Maynor, communities and transportation program director at the S.C. Coastal Conservation League (CCL). Instead of being absorbed by plants or trees, water overflows as nonpoint source pollution, or runoff.

More significantly, this nonpoint source pollution, which can include everything from tiny plastic nurdles to leaky septic tank runoff, carries harmful pathogens like those measured by the Charleston Waterkeeper. It’s “one of the biggest sources of pollution in our waterways,” Maynor added. Essentially, stormwater and groundwater mix with bacteria, all of which is deposited into streams and rivers, making some unsafe for swimming.

High readings in local streams monitored weekly by Charleston Waterkeeper threaten our health, environment and sense of community. Unfortunately, said waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley, there won’t be much of a difference anytime soon. Why? “There’s no real [water] regulation in this state,” he said.

Septic tank leakage

Building on coastal zones means following a specific set of rules, Wunderley said, but they’re not being applied well, especially when it comes to septic tank permits.

As many South Carolinians know, a septic tank is a large underground container that pipes effluent, or liquid wastewater, from a home or business into a soil-filled drainfield for treatment. It has the potential to increase bacteria levels significantly in surrounding waterways, particularly when old or improperly installed, by literally causing sewage to leak into area streams.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “at least 20% of all septic tank systems are malfunctioning to some degree.” As sea water levels continue to rise on the coast, South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) Senior Managing Attorney Leslie Lenhardt said, the failure rate will only increase.

Septic systems aren’t necessarily bad, Maynor said — it’s just that contractors need to take into account the density of a housing lot when installing one.

“Individual septic tanks, which when properly located on a proper scale — it’s a functional waste management system for rural areas. But when you start building suburban or urban-style developments using those, that’s when you sort of run into the issues,” Maynor continued.
That’s what’s happening to residents of Awendaw, a small town north of Mount Pleasant.

They’re fighting the initial permit of a development with more than 200 houses in which waste would be deposited into septic systems.

“The effluent from that tank doesn’t stay in the soil long enough to achieve appropriate treatment,” Wunderley said. By its very nature, it’s designed to fail — because of the density. As a result, contaminated groundwater will leak into the nearby surface water.

“DHEC [S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control] does review and consider every application we receive for a septic tank,” according to a DHEC spokesman.

But there’s often a catch, according to Lenhardt. The agency generally is not considering the things required by the federal government’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

“They just do a calculation — how big is the drain field? Where is the water table? How deep is your septic tank?” Lenhardt said, even though these questions don’t account for the larger ecosystem.

“There’s not a single example in the Lowcountry of a community where the longtime residents have not been hurt when this kind of style of development comes in,” said Grace Gasper, executive director of Friends of Coastal South Carolina.

Worrying findings at a downtown creek

Fanning was monitoring the water in Gadsden Creek in Charleston’s Westside neighborhood in recent months when her sample brought back an oxygen reading level of zero. Fanning was in disbelief; an oxygen reading level of zero meant that any fish in the water would suffocate.
She asked for her data to be rechecked. Her findings were verified.

Fanning also noticed recently that the creek’s water had turned completely black. She reported her observations to the city. It reportedly is still investigating the source.

Environmental advocates are worried about how black sludge (pictured above) impacts Gadsden Creek and the surrounding ecosystem | Courtesy Community Hydrology

Gadsden Creek is a tidal creek downtown which feeds into the Charleston Waterkeeper’s Ashley River 2 test site at Brittlebank Park. It has the fourth highest bacteria levels among the 20 surveyed over the last few years.

Fanning said she wondered how the creek might be affecting the contamination in the river. “It’s not an issue that’s limited to Gadsden Creek,” she said.

Also reaching beyond Gadsden Creek’s physical boundaries is the sense of community within the historically Black Gadsden Green neighborhood. The creek is “a big part of a culture within the community. … It [the creek] was used for baptisms,” said Friends of Gadsden Creek organizer Mikayla Mangle. People might go there to fish or just to walk around, she added.

People who live near the creek in Gadsden Green today also fear the potential development proposal to fill Gadsden Creek, which might result in further gentrification and displacement, Mangle said. “Everyone at the tenant meetings has been there for a very long time — like decades. So it is definitely a community where people have lived for most of their lives.”

Ultimately, the tenants want the creek to stick around because they want to stick around, too.

Stalled cleanup and moving forward

Filbin Creek is consistently — and by far — the most polluted of the creeks on Charleston Waterkeeper’s list. It has tested significantly above the healthy bacteria levels 100% of the time for the past two years.

Yet Filbin Creek is still a spot for local fishing and recreation. It’s located in a low-income Black community. It’s also right off I-526; roadsides can be major sources of waterway contamination, Maynor and Fanning said.

Somehow, the creek isn’t designated impaired, which would require DHEC to begin the process of cleanup. In June, Charleston Waterkeeper announced it would petition DHEC to classify the creek as impaired so that it’ll be a priority for efforts of decontamination.

Despite obstacles, some are paving the way for better water treatment and quality in the future.

Fanning has an idea in mind based on a wastewater treatment project called San Lorenzo in California.

“They put in what’s known as a horizontal levee. And it was a tiered system where they could take your treated wastewater,” she said. Each platform had one native plant that could take in different quantities of wastewater, which showed the ability of various species of plants to filter the water for bacteria before it would run into streams and rivers, she said.

Some people are also trying to minimize harm from waste disposal systems that already exist. SCELP has recently filed an injunction against all DHEC septic tank permits, taking another angle to stopping, or at least stalling, the development of homes in Awendaw.

For residences with septic tanks that are already permitted, it’s all about accessible services to prevent any further damage. Charleston County has recently begun a septic system program where residents below a certain income can attend a workshop and apply to have their septic tanks fixed free of charge.

Awendaw started something similar 12 years ago, Gasper said. “We had a community group that raised money to help low income residents replace septic.”

Riley Egger, land, water and wildlife program director at Coastal Conservation League, emphasized the nuances of the issue — septic tanks are important for communities to “retain their autonomy” in the face of sewer-scale development.

Gasper emphasized that she’s not against development, but that it’s about development that’s “conservation-minded.”

Community input is extremely important, too, Maynor added.

One example of this type of the engagement, said Egger, is the James Island Creek Taskforce. “It convened to get city leaders and people from the water district together in the same room to say, ‘We are recognizing this as a problem, how are we going to be able to solve it and make sure that our waters are fishable?’”

Awendaw, Egger said, is enacting a comprehensive plan, which “is really going to be a guiding document for growth and development” and has been largely backed by local residents. “It’s something that’s overdue and very much needed,” she noted.

Awendaw is a town in transition, Maynor said, adding, “I think the community is asking itself, ‘What do we want to be?’”

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