We need better notification for sewer spills

EVEN IF THE PUBLIC health threat is relatively small, nobody likes the thought of fishing, swimming or boating in fecal-contaminated water. So when it comes to sewage spills, it’s better to know too much than too little. Yet how much and how quickly we find out about contamination depends primarily on how much the utility that’s responsible for the pollution wants to tell us. Since state law only requires water and sewer operators to notify DHEC, and then only to make an oral contact within 24 hours and provide a detailed report within five days, in many cases the danger already has passed before it’s even theoretically possible for the public to find out about sewage spills. In one dramatic case in February, an 800,000-gallon spill was barely noticed by the public because the city of Columbia handled its notification as though it were a minor, routine spill. A similar, though far less egregious thing happened when Cayce had an 80,000-gallon spill two weeks later. That’s the sort of thing we have unfortunately come to expect from private utilities. It’s disturbing that public officials behaved this way because they have a much greater obligation to the public, and they run the largest wastewater treatment facilities in the region, which should be taking over the operations of smaller, mostly private systems. All utilities should err on the side of too much information rather than leaving it to DHEC to decide if more than a cryptic notification is sufficient. But state law also should require more to let people know about contamination before they’ve already been swimming in it. Specifically, the Legislature should: • Require utilities to notify the public, not just DHEC, within a few hours of significant spills. • Require more specific information sooner. It might not be reasonable to think that a utility knows in the first minutes whether a spill will be 5,000 gallons or 1 million, but neither is it reasonable for the public to have to wait days to get some idea of the scope of the problem. • Create a quicker centralized reporting system. We have far more sewer systems than we should, which makes keeping track of them all far more difficult than it should be. In addition to requiring utilities to notify the public immediately of spills, we need a central clearinghouse where, say, people interested in fishing or boating can go to see whether certain streams or rivers are contaminated. DHEC, which eventually posts all that information, is the obvious entity to maintain a real-time clearinghouse, although legal and budgetary constraints could make it iffy for the agency to try that without legislative authority. Unfortunately, no one’s even considering such changes. After failing to make progress on public notice last year, environmentalists are focused this year on correcting recurring problems with pipes and sewage systems. Their priorities are right: Anyone who had to choose between finding out more about spills and not having the spills in the first place would of course choose not to have them. But it’s a false choice, because we’ll always have some spills. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be better informed than we are today. That would be obvious to the Legislature if it would focus a little more on protecting the public health and a little less on protecting the bottom line of polluters. ((06 APR 2011))








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