SC septic tank permits aren’t getting proper review | Commentary

Over the past year, our community has gained a better understanding of how outdated septic policies and inaction are endangering our health and polluting our waterways. Despite these concerns and pending legal action by our organizations, the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control is moving forward with permitting more harmful septic tanks near our waterways without conducting the required coastal zone review.

Although almost all other types of state and federal environmental permits have similar guidelines, DHEC staff does not review septic tank permits in our eight coastal counties for compliance with the state's Coastal Zone Management Act. During this important review, DHEC must consider the unique conditions of the coastal zone, such as whether the permit site is near such important locations as a wildlife refuge or the Intracoastal Waterway.

In real time, we are witnessing a trifecta of existing septic tank pollution harming coastal communities, worsening coastal flooding due to sea level rise and extreme weather, and DHEC approving dozens of permits for large clusters of septic tanks in ecologically sensitive areas. As South Carolina's population grows at an unprecedented rate, efforts to manage that growth must be balanced with consideration of impacts on our estuaries, from water quality and recreation to marine life and fisheries.

Large-scale facilities that rely on conventional septic tank systems are approved near particularly sensitive areas. These approvals raise major health concerns and financial challenges for our communities and our environment.

This threat is immediate. Recently, DHEC approved 44 septic tank permits for the White Tract Development in Awendaw, and more are in the pipeline. The White Tract lies within the boundaries of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and borders the Francis Marion National Forest. Part of the area borders the Intracoastal Waterway and ecologically sensitive Sewee Bay, which is an outstanding water resource and has the highest water quality standards in the state. More than 200 single-family homes are planned to be built in this ecologically sensitive area – some packhouses and septic tanks on properties as small as a thirteenth of an acre. DHEC issued these permits without a review of the Coastal Management Program or without public notice, which would provide communities an opportunity to participate and learn about changes impacting their neighborhoods.

In late 2022, our organizations jointly filed a lawsuit in state court to require DHEC to review all septic tank permits for compliance with the Coastal Management Program and to publicly disclose applications and permits for septic tanks in the coastal zone. This would promote transparency and ensure that regulatory decisions with far-reaching, long-term implications are not made behind closed doors.

While this case is pending, we have asked the court to prohibit DHEC from issuing septic tank permits to dense developments in the coastal zone. It declined, and given the severity of the potential harm to our waterways, we asked the court to reconsider.

Our organizations then asked the DHEC Board to review the recent staff decision to issue the 44 individual septic tank permits for the White Tract Development.

Coastal septic tank permitting policies need to be reformed at both the local and state levels to fully address the ongoing threat of septic tank pollution in our waterways. In the meantime, we call on DHEC to provide transparency for communities that will struggle with the consequences of today's decisions for decades to come.

We are committed to ensuring that the unique ecological value of South Carolina's coastal zone is fully recognized and protected. This requires reviewing septic-dependent developments in the coastal zone for compliance with the Coastal Management Program and increasing public awareness when DHEC makes such decisions.

Amy Armstrong is executive director of the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, Faith Rivers James is the executive director of the Coastal Conservation League and Andrew Wunderley is Executive Director of Charleston Waterkeeper and serves as Charleston's Waterkeeper.

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