The 75 acres at the edge of Clover where the Miller family has lived since the 1700s has seen nothing but sweet potato and alfalfa crops and a few houses surrounded by woods.
Being so isolated, Judy Miller and her husband Ralph never suspected the chemical smell in their well water came from high concentrations of toxic, industrial chemicals.
In June, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control tested their well water, finding ten chlorinated solvents commonly used in dry cleaning, degreasers and other industrial cleaners. Four of the solvents exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's standards for maximum contaminant levels in drinking water and one, tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, was found in concentrations more than 6,000 times what is considered safe for drinking water.
"I guess I was so naive to think that someone would dump something so terrible," Judy Miller said.
The Millers have been told to stop using well water. Her sister, who has city water, is allowing them to get water from her garden spigot until they can replace what was a reliable source of water for 40 years.
Fran Marshall, DHEC state toxicologist, recommended the Millers see their physicians. So far, their doctors say, they are healthy. Judy Miller said the water she used for showers may have contributed to irritating her skin and eyes.
Judy Miller said she is thankful they ate out and drank bottled water so often.
"Our preference is to keep our good country water, but I don't know if that's going to happen now," Ralph Miller said.
Chemical odors 10 years old
The discovery comes about a decade after the Millers first noticed a chemical odor when running faucets or drinking well water.
Several years ago, a sample from their 212-foot well was tested. It came back negative. Later the Millers discovered the test checked only for bacteria.
Recently, the water developed a chemical taste. They switched to bottled water for drinking and cooking, but they continued to use well water for showering.
In May, the Millers sought to have the water tested again. This time, the DHEC sent a crew to the Millers' residence.
The results are contamination levels not usually seen in private wells, said Jonathan McInnis, the project manager for the site assessment division of DHEC.
Chlorinated solvents evaporate quickly, McInnis said. The resulting chemical vapor explains the strong chemical smell. Exposure side effects are skin irritation and possible damage to the liver, kidney and lungs if inhaled or ingested. Some of the chemicals might cause cancer.
Looking for the source
Finding the source of the contamination, or exactly when the chemicals were released into the environment, may prove difficult due to the geology of the area.
The farm lies atop bedrock which has many fractures through which water can travel from unknown distances and locations.
McInnis and his team are drilling small wells around the Millers' property to determine the extent of the contamination. They are collecting soil, well water and surface water samples.
They are making a list of nearby private wells to check and will investigate about a dozen former or current businesses nearby as possible sources of the contamination.
It's unclear when DHEC will know where and when the contamination was released into the environment.
"We're in the early stages of our investigation," McInnis said.
For now, the Millers are just glad to have DHEC working on the problem. But the idea that someone could be dumping contaminants on the ground still disturbs Judy Miller.
"This has been an eye-opening, maddening experience," she said, "even if we do squeak by with no health problems."
"Somebody somewhere is pouring something on the ground."