An estimated 1 million gallons of raw sewage leaked into a creek south of Rock Hill over the weekend, killing a limited number of fish and raising concerns about the safety of livestock as far downstream as Chester County.
Frustrated that no one in the mostly rural area called to report the problem, city utilities officials are searching for new ways to encourage neighbors to report accidents. The leak began late Saturday, but wasn't discovered until Monday morning, more than 30 hours later.
"People noticed this stuff, but nobody called in," Utilities Director Jimmy Bagley said. "We would've sent somebody out right away."
The problem started when a pump malfunctioned at the Wildcat Creek pump station on Robertson Road near South Pointe High School, one of 22 such stations scattered across the city.
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Typically, a backup pump will kick in. But in this case, the pump failure coincided with a power outage that knocked out electricity to the station -- also killing an alarm that is supposed to notify utility supervisors of breakdowns. The cause of the outage is unknown.
"I've been here 18 years, and we've never had one that's done that," Bagley said. "Certainly, other cities have had a lot worse spills. It's very unusual for us to have anything like it."
Neighbors later reported smelling a foul odor, Bagley said, but only after the problem had been discovered on Monday.
Sewage leaks can bring fines from the state, but a spokesman for the Department of Health and Environmental Control said Wednesday the agency is unlikely to levy any penalties. That's because proper steps were taken once the leak was discovered.
Leak prompted cattle concerns
Wildcat Creek flows into Fishing Creek south of Rock Hill to become one of the larger creeks in York County. It passes a number of cow pastures as it winds south toward Chester.
Between 800 and 1,000 cows graze in its vicinity, a number that has declined in recent years, said Rusty Thomson with the Clemson Extension Service.
"Since the drought, a lot of these fellas sold their cattle," he said. "They don't have anything to feed them. Grass is not growing. They don't have any hay."
Still, Thomson's agency took steps to warn farmers not to let their cows drink the tainted water. No cattle are believed to be in danger; farmers said they have put up fences to keep their livestock away from the creek.
Farther south, the creek pools up in Lando at the dam that once powered Manetta Mills. In the summertime, children use it as a swimming hole. But the dam was quiet this week, said Eddie Murphy, director of emergency management in Chester County.
"It's not uncommon to have 10 or 12 kids in that water in a day" during the summer, he said. "There's not supposed to be any swimming there in the first place, but people have been coming there for 100 years, and it's hard to stop them."
Still uncertain is the number of fish killed from the leak. The Department of Natural Resources is investigating, and its work could take several more days.
Rather than issuing a fine, Bagley said DNR might ask the city to pay for staff time or re-stock the creek with fish to replace the ones that died.