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Bill takes on sewage spills

LAKE WYLIE -- S.C. Rep. Carl Gullick devoted an entire public service career to York County and Lake Wylie in the past two decades. Yet it's one of his final efforts that could protect the water and lake users for years to come.

Gullick's sewage spill notification bill received House approval last month and is now in the Senate's hands. Despite plans to leave for Kentucky next month, Gullick eagerly awaits word on whether the bill becomes law.

"I may not be living in South Carolina when this thing passes, but I want to know when it does," he said.

Currently, sewage spills of 1,000 gallons or more require notifying only the Department of Health and Environmental Control. The utility responsible for the discharge is then responsible for cleaning up the spill.

"Once it goes to DHEC, the public never finds out about it," Gullick said.

In fact, said Bureau of Water assistant bureau chief David Baize, the state does not keep easily accessible records of past spills for its own use, and has nothing allowing the public information.

"I don't think there's a nice easy way," Baize said. "I don't think we have anything right now."

A "more robust" public notification plan was requested of utility providers in 2008, Baize said, to try and help "improve the timeliness factor."

But bill H3603, which mandates immediate public notification of a sewage spill topping 1,000 gallons in South Carolina waters and took less than three months to pass in the House, could change that. Failure by the responsible party to provide public notification, as well as notifying DHEC, would result in a misdemeanor with penalties up to $200 per day, imprisonment up to 30 days, or both. No penalties are issued for the spill itself.

"A lot of this is a public safety issue," Gullick said. "You could have a 50,000 gallon spill on Lake Wylie, and people are out playing in the lake."

According to environmental advocacy group American Rivers, sewage spills are no small matter. More than 860 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage enter national waterways each year, often without public knowledge. Spills can endanger the ecosystem of waterways, as well as potentially causing sickness for humans who come in contact with the sewage.

"Sewage notification is about protecting public health and shining a light on a rather odious problem," said Gerrit Jobsis, southeast regional director for the group.

The group named the Catawba River the most endangered river in the country in 2008, based on uncertainty with current and future water supply. Recently, that designation was bestowed upon South Carolina's Saluda River for 2009 because of high phosphorus levels from sewage treatment plants causing algae blooms and fish kills.

"We need water legislation," said Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman. "We can't wait any longer."

North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources already mandates a press release sent to "all print and electronic media providing general coverage" of the area where the spill occurs, said state environmental specialist Lon Snider, for smaller spills and more detailed public notification in larger cases.

"We require a press release of 1,000 gallons or more of untreated wastewater to surface water," Snider said. "That's within 48 hours. We require a public notice for 15,000 gallons or more within 10 days. That's usually purchased in local newspapers with all the information of where it happened, how much, how long it's going to last."

The biggest benefit beyond public safety, Gullick said, is the bad press of continued reporting of repeat offenders.

"It would be rapidly obvious," he said of multiple offenders.

Yet Ron Wanless of River Hills, representing York County on the Lake Wylie Marine Commission, says he rarely hears about spills in South Carolina. Except from individual residents, who sometimes report several problems across a long period of time.

"It is not uncommon," Wanless said, "but it is uncommon for people to know about it."

Some state water providers do provide public notice, Wanless said, but only at about a 50 percent rate on a voluntary basis. South Carolina's voluntary reporting system, he says, simply "isn't good enough."

"It's vital that such a requirement be instituted," he said. "This is the only way we can work to allow citizens to take action and safeguard their safety."

While the new sewage spill bill will have to wait until the next legislative session in early 2010, proponents say it's only an asset to South Carolina.

"Taking a swim, or going fishing or boating, should never be a guessing game," Jobsis said.

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