TEGA CAY — A hefty fine and a hefty workload await Tega Cay Water Service, as state environmental regulators demand action after repeated sewage spills into Lake Wylie.
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Services put out a consent order Feb. 3 demanding a remedy from the utility after months of spills. The order outlines a variety of needed improvements and sets deadlines for when they’re needed.
“The company has 30 days to get a temporary fix in place to stop the spills, and a two-year plan is required to complete an expedited capital improvement project,” said Mark Plowden, DHEC spokesperson.
The order also includes a $136,000 civil penalty to be paid within 30 days.
The order states past spills, like the six on Dec. 23 estimated at more than 178,000 gallons, and three more Dec. 29 at more than 10,000 gallons, violated S.C.’s Pollution Control Act. Such violations can result in fines of up to $10,000 per day. By rule, those fines are a company cost and can’t be wrapped into rate increases.
“That fine cannot be passed on to the ratepayer,” Plowden said.
Tom Oakley with the utility’s parent company, Utilities, Inc., said the order is a “good thing” for laying out what both parties should expect.
“It clearly outlines the work that we will do and the schedule on which the repairs and improvements will be completed,” he said. “There is no work in the plan that wouldn’t have been done eventually as part of our ongoing maintenance and improvement program, so we are happy to move forward with the work.”
At least one disgruntled utility customer had a mixed reaction to the sanctions levied by the state.
“How is this going to affect us when it come time for another rate increase,” asked Linda Stevenson of the Tega Cay Water Citizens Advisory Council, formed by customers who said they are fed up with TCWS. Stevenson said she would have preferred DHEC, rather than fine the company, order it to use that money to improve service.
“I’m very upset, she said. “That fine of $136,000 could go a distance toward fixing the system,” she said. Instead, it’s going to the agencies in the state. And who’s going to come here and check to make sure these people are doing this properly?”
There are aspects of DHEC’s order Stevenson said she’s pleased with.
“The good thing is, the heat is on this company and not on the city,” she said.
“It is pressuring them to do something about it. I personally have had it with this company. We get lip service from them and that’s all.”
Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard, himself a TCWS critic, said “I think it’s a good start.”
However, like Stevenson, he takes issue with the fine.
“The problem I have with the fine is, the City of Tega Cay doesn’t get it. It goes into the coffers of the state and is not returned to the citizens of Tega Cay,” he said.
Sheppard also points out that TCWS can request an extension on the deadlines, which he feels takes some bite out of the order.
Other than that, he’s on-board with DHEC’s action.
“It’s an aggressive remedy that they are required to do,” Sheppard said. “It has taken the Tega Cay citizens advisory group and the city council [to get action] but we are on this and we will continue to stay on it.”
Tega Cay Water Service has five days from the issued order to submit a plan “detailing interim measures” to eliminate spills by creating capacity to handle the wastewater load. Those measures must be in place within 21 days of state approval.
The company has 30 days to submit engineering plans for improvements at three wastewater treatment plants, then 90 days to apply for permits and 90 more to begin construction. The work must be finished within 120 days of construction starting.
A customer service plan is required within 30 days. It must show how the company will “provide timely notice to the customers of the affected area” when any spill occurs, according to the order.
A complete sewer main rehabilitation must be complete within 12 months. A rehabilitation of the entire service system must be complete within 18 months. Projects taking any longer than those deadlines must be submitted in six or 12 months, respectively, and receive state approval.
Tega Cay Water Service must submit a summary of improvements made in 90 days, and every 90 days thereafter. It must be updated every 30 days.
DHEC also said the company must immediately begin a “capacity audit,” including a financial plan, lift station inspection and maintenance schedules, a sewer inspection and cleaning program. The audit is supposed to cover everything from an organizational chart and an inventory of spare parts to a “fats, oils and grease control program.”
The utility has 240 days to comply.
Other requirements are holdovers from the previous order. TCWS has to submit public notices to DHEC of any spill of at least 5,000 gallons and collect hourly samples of overflows and test for ammonia, biochemical oxygen demand, total phosphorus, fecal coliform and dissolved oxygen. Records must be provided to the state within 15 days of an overflow.
The company has 24 hours to notify the state of a spill, and five days to provide written documentation.
Michael Harrison contributed.