Close to 70 people poured into Tega Cay City Council chambers Monday to deliver a message that isn’t new, but one they insisted be heard.
Enough with the sewage spills, residents said, and with the company responsible.
“We realize this is an issue for everybody in the city,” Councilwoman Dottie Hersey said at the Sept. 16 meeting.
Joel Wood, city engineer, presented a study that’s being finalized this week on potential city options in dealing with Tega Cay Water Service. The company has had numerous issues with spills in recent years, including dozens of documented cases this year. The company says improvements are being made.
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“We understand that the spills are unacceptable to residents and assure you that they are unacceptable to us,” said Rick Durham, regional vice president of parent company Utilities, Inc. “The assertion that we have done nothing is completely false.”
What can be done?
Evaluating city options for improved service is an unusual task, Wood said, since the city doesn’t own the system. Based on available information, it would cost the city $3 million to repair lines or $2.11 million to pump wastewater to Rock Hill. Building an equalization basin and new wastewater treatment plant would cost $4.8 million. Pumping to York County or Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities sites isn’t an option, as they don’t have the spare capacity.
Wood said it’s “not typical” for a municipality to make any such move. If the city owned the system, it likely would employ a combination of options to resolve the issue.
“It’s really not the best alternative,” Wood said. “It’s the alternative that Tega Cay could participate in.”
Much of the infrastructure was put in place in the early 1970s. Tega Cay Water serves the oldest parts of the city, with Tega Cay Utilities Department handling newer additions. Durham said the age on the system is an issue. A recent spill came from a pipe that was inspected three months prior, before roots grew into it.
“This is a highly complex system as evidenced by all we have done and yet we are still experiencing spills,” Durham said. “The clay pipe sections of the system are old and subject to joint failure and cracks which allow for root intrusion.
Wood came away with one unusual finding that could prove a cause in the recent spills: A typical pipe system might have a little less than twice the sewage coursing through it at peak times compared to normal flow. A brand new system would be about 1.2 times as much. The system he studied has a peak value at 3.25 times normal flow.
As part of the utility’s most recent rate increase in February, state regulators required a plan to fix problems reported by residents. The company continues with that plan, having increased pumping capacity at four lift stations and performed a variety of inspections and improvements.
Residents weren’t short on ideas for improving the situation. They want the state health department and the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene. They want legal action from the city. One resident said Tega Cay shouldn’t be “held hostage” by the utility but instead should “fine them right out of existence.” Another proposed a new city ordinance fining “people who defecate in the lake.”
Still another asked Council to shut down other city activities until a resolution is found.
Gus Matchunis is relatively new to protesting Tega Cay Water Service. A Sept. 1 sewage spill of an estimated 1,000 gallons near Tepa Place prompted his action. In recent weeks the story of children swimming near the spill, as repair took place but without being told to get out of the water, circulated among residents.
“Those were my children in that water, 50 yards away from where they put that little [no swimming] sign out,” Matchunis said. “And according to them, they’re good.”
Linda Stevenson is a leader with the Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council. She’s been documenting spills and complaints for several years to use in rate increase cases. But that Sept. 1 incident and the threat it created, she said, was particularly egregious.
“That should never ever happen anywhere,” Stevenson said. “We need to get this company out of Tega Cay.”
Councilman Chris Landvik-Larsen said the city is aware of public concerns and the “devastation to the lake” caused by spills. All proposed actions are on the table, he said. But initially the city will focus on better communication following spills, as options like litigation take time.
“I don’t want my kids swimming in sewage,” Matchunis said. “That’s all.”
Mayor George Sheppard met with the state Department of Health and Environmental Control this week to talk Tega Cay Water Service. Council hasn’t ruled out ordinances to fine the utility or legal action. But they do warn, in the near term, for residents to understand what is and isn’t an option.
“We all understand that we do not own the water system,” Hersey said. “We are at a point where we can do nothing to fix the system.”
Council members say they understand home values and use of the lake for recreation are impacted, even for residents who don’t rely on Tega Cay Water Service in their homes.
“It’s not falling on deaf ears,” Sheppard said.