In 2011, when Tega Cay Water Service still served part of the city, the utility tested at almost double the allowable amount for lead.
Charlie Funderburk, city manager, said the city wasn't informed of the test results from 2011. The state health department called Philip Jolley, city utilities director, earlier this week to find out how the city publicized findings.
Locals served by Carolina Water Service see recent results of lead in water as more than cause for concern.
They see it as a call for change.
Carolina Water Service tested 52 of its 105 water systems in South Carolina, with three returning results showing elevated levels of lead. The River Hills system, Foxwood in Fort Mill and city of Tega Cay were joined by Cedarwood in Lexington County.
“This was a surprise to us because we are providing high quality, bulk purchased water treated by a municipality at two of these systems and we have appropriate corrosion control treatment in place at the other,” said Richard Durham, company president.
“And all source water testing results confirmed no presence of lead.”
Follow-up testing in the affected communities showed normal levels for lead and any other contaminants.
“We were relieved to learn the retest samples came back as we expected they would, but the reality is, we know the presence of lead in drinking water at any level can be a concern,” Durham said.
Tom Oakley with parent company Utilities Inc. said Carolina Water promptly tested the problem areas and found no further water quality issues. Water going into homes, he said, tested fine.
“The primary source of lead getting into the water in the customers’ homes is the result of lead that can be found the household plumbing material,” he said. “Lead that may exist in customers’ homes is a concern to Carolina Water Service and its customers.”
The company advises residents to do a short flush before drinking or cooking with water, letting it run 15 to 30 seconds first.
State Rep. Ralph Norman, an outspoken critic of Carolina Water Service during past rate increase hearings and other public events, sent an email to Lake Wylie Chamber of Commerce and other community members Tuesday morning. Norman called the lead reports “very disturbing to say the least,” calling for a public forum with legislators, state utility regulators, the testing agency that produced the results and interested residents.
“Now is the time to become actively involved in considering other options,” Norman wrote.
One such option in discussion is for York County not to renew its agreement with Carolina Water, which expires at the end of the year. The county could choose to have in appraiser put a value on the system, and pay that cost to take over the system rather than negotiating with Carolina Water. The county is looking into the expiring contract, but county manager Bill Shanahan hasn’t said in which direction, if any, he is leaning.
Doug Meyer-Cuno is one of two Lake Wylie residents, along with Allison Love, with plans to run for York County Council. Official filing hasn’t opened. Meyer-Cuno sees the lead results as a reason to rid the area of the utility.
“We need to study that real quickly, and it’s another reason why the county should be managing the water supply and not the company Carolina Water Service,” he said. “I think we should terminate the contract.”
Meyer-Cuno said the company is “overpriced and services are underdelivered.”
“It’s a shame and the county should take it over,” he said.
Betty Aldridge agrees. She moved to Foxwood 11 years ago and complains of a variety of water issues, from cost to quality. Residents in 250 homes there pay $100 a month or more “for water we don’t even drink,” she said.
The lead result is a first since she arrived, Aldridge said, but there have been reports of other problems with water in the past.
“This has been an ongoing problem,” she said.
What most concerned her with the recent incident is an inability to get consistent answers, she said, when contacting the company and state health department. She said she wanted to find out what caused the elevated lead levels, when testing was done and how extensive it was. Aldridge said she didn’t hear anything about the results until she saw them in the news.
“We need to be notified, a boil advisory – something,” she said. “We know things can happen.”
Aldridge said she is afraid to use the water. She points to Tega Cay, where a fellow Utilities, Inc. subsidiary called Tega Cay Water Service had similar problems before the city purchased the system in 2014. In a major election year and with attention on water due to problems in Flint, Mich., Aldridge sees an opportunity to make enough noise to bring about change.
“We’re all seeing the same thing,” she said of customers in different areas. “It’s not (just one) area. It’s got to be part of the company’s responsibility.”
The company insists the water it provides to homes is safe.
“The troubling part about the presence of lead in drinking water is that even with the best corrosion control treatment utilities can provide, customers can still be at risk of exposure due to lead-based plumbing materials used inside their homes,” Durham said.
“If the water has been sitting in the pipes for an extended period of time, the risk is certainly there.”
"He reminded them that we did not own it in 2011 nor were we made aware of it," Funderburk said.
The city posts water testing results in its annual consumer confidence report. The 2014 results are online now and the 2015 results will go up in June.
"The city does not have any lead in our service connections," Funderburk said. "Lead may exist in the internal plumbing of some of the older homes that still have the original interior plumbing."
Results since 2011, even under Tega Cay Water Service ownership, didn't show high lead levels.
"To our knowledge there hasn't been an issue in the city since 2011," Funderburk said, "and that issue was outside of the city's control of purview."
Councilman David O'Neal, an involved citizen with the effort to purchase Tega Cay Water Service before his election last fall, said there were a variety of issues that prompted residents to ask the city to get rid of the private utility. Lead wasn't one of them.
"We never had a dirty water problem," O'Neal said. "We had a sewage problem.