Environmental activists express concerns on septic tank pollution in coastal waterways

AWENDAW, SC (WCSC) – The coastal waters are home to activities such as fishing, crabbing and are home to many of the Lowcountry’s famous oysters. However, a nonprofit environmental law firm and Awendaw residents say these waterways may be at risk.

Charleston Waterkeeper and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, two Lowcountry environmental organizations, want the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to have more control over sewage treatment plants installed along the coast. Because of this, they filed a lawsuit in November that is now making its way through the district court.

“DHEC has, no one has any idea how many septic systems exist in South Carolina because no one is tracking them,” said Emily Nellermoe, attorney with the South Carolina Environmental Law Firm and one of the plaintiffs’ lead counsel.

One of the many areas of concern is in the town of Awendaw. Earlier this spring, the city’s planning commission approved two large residential areas, resulting in more than 400 septic tanks standing adjacent to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Susan Cox lives in Awendaw and says she is passionate about saving these waterways.

“The City of Awendaw’s mission statement is that they want to maintain the rural character of the city, but there’s nothing about a dense community that says rural,” Cox said.

Cox says she and her neighbors believe this area was improperly rezoned years ago. She says these septic tanks will cause irreversible damage to wildlife.

Charleston Waterkeeper director Andrew Wunderley says his organization tests the water quality of areas like these.

“There is evidence that septic tanks, especially at high density, can drain pollution through streams and rivers,” Wunderley said. “So, it’s a big problem … All the activities that make the Lowcountry lifestyle and life here in the Lowcountry so special are at risk.”

Nellermoe says she doesn’t know why the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Protection isn’t asking these important questions.

“What is the impact of 200 sewage treatment plants on the watershed as a whole?” said Nellermoe. “What is the impact on the oyster beds and shellfish harvest? They don’t ask any of those questions, and they shouldn’t, and that’s a problem.”

The Department of Health and Environmental Control says it will not comment on pending litigation. However, Nellermoe says she’s heard from them recently, and they say they don’t have to use their specialized agency to verify those permits and they don’t break any laws.

“This is the largest undeveloped stretch of coastline on the east coast of the United States, and once it’s gone, it’s gone,” said Cox. “You can’t get it back.”

The City of Awendaw did not respond to a comment. Nellermoe says the timeline for this appeal is dependent on court scheduling, so there is no set date when further action will be taken.

The complaint filed for the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and Charleston Waterkeeper against the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is listed below.

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