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‘Cancer on the river’: Why experts say work to protect Lake Wylie isn’t working

Lake Wylie filled with Bonum Road runoff

Runoff from a road construction project in Lake Wylie, South Carolina has the lake filling in after heavy rains. Residents say the road was never needed.
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Runoff from a road construction project in Lake Wylie, South Carolina has the lake filling in after heavy rains. Residents say the road was never needed.

Experts say there’s a major pollution problem on Lake Wylie and the waters all around it, and the current way of handling it isn’t working.

“We kind of see sedimentation as a cancer on the river,” said Neil Brennan, chairman of the Lake Wylie Marine Commission. “And unfortunately, we’ve had a couple of real bad blowouts here recently.”

When sediment spills into Lake Wylie, the loose sand, clay, silt and other soil matter settles in the water and builds up. Widespread construction, mixed with rain, is the recipe for runoff.

“It’s not a matter of those big construction companies, if they’re going to have another one,” Brennan told York County Council Monday night. “It’s just a matter of when.”

In late July, a sediment spill at Cypress Pointe in Lake Wylie angered and alarmed residents. Catawba Riverkeeper Sam Perkins called it “one of the worst and most pervasive polluters we’ve ever had.” York County issued a stop work order for D.R. Horton at the site. York County Councilwoman Allison Love, who represents Lake Wylie and Clover, called the spill a “textbook example of what not to do.”

It wasn’t the first spill. The largest, lake experts say, was in August 2017 when a sediment retention wall failed at a Mattamy Homes construction site, just north of the state line. Witnesses then said the inflow to Torrence Creek, north of Tega Cay, visibly raised the lake level.

“Those blowouts were caused by construction companies,” Brennan said. “So was the Brown’s Cove one a few years ago. So was the Mattamy Homes one over there on Torrence Creek, which occurred in North Carolina but went into South Carolina waters.”

Brennan isn’t the first to address the issue. The county has been working for months on a potential stormwater ordinance with a workshop scheduled in a couple of months.

“We’ve heard several concerns about developers and building contaminating the lake,” said Councilman William “Bump” Roddey.

Experts agree the methods for handling sediment spills aren’t preventing them. So the marine commission hired a graduate student to study the sediment issue, including what plants could best stabilize shorelines. The commission wants to share information with homeowners on the water to protect the coves.

Love invited Brennan and the commissioners to share the study findings.

“Maybe there’s information in that that would let us know what is needed along those shorelines,” Love said.

Counties have the ability to fine construction companies for letting runoff loose from their sites. Counties can issue stop work orders until problems are fixed. But either option allows a developer first to fix the issue. Rules vary among the three counties and two states surrounding the lake.

“It ought to be, what can we do to keep stuff from going in the lake, as opposed, to what am I going to get fined if I do?” Brennan said.

The Torrence Creek spill in Mecklenburg County, he said, was slapped with a $68,000 fine -- the largest experts can recall on the lake.

“It isn’t a lot,” Brennan said, explaining developing one lot would more than pay the fine.

Roddey said Council needs to discuss what they can do, including how to communicate with developers before work begins.

“Maybe we need reinforcement or reassurance from them that they’re going to do their part to try to keep the contamination out,” Roddey said. “I’d much rather them not contaminate it, and keep their money, and help us protect it.”

Sediment pollution reaches beyond the lake. Indian Land in Lancaster County, along with Lake Wylie, Fort Mill and Tega Cay, are among the fastest growing areas in the state.

Rhonda Oliver of Indian Land said she and neighbors are tired of paying $60 a year for a stormwater fee when homebuilders there are polluting waterways. In the Brentwood subdivision, she said, there isn’t a retention pond and a drainage pipe points to an adjacent cemetery.

On July 6, flooding at Calvin Hall Road and Elven Drive from Avondale rose to the point firefighters had to shut down the road. A month later, mud again stained the area and other parts of Calvin Hall.

“This is a big environmental problem happening in Indian Land,” Oliver said.

Brennan would like to see builders and public agencies share information when there are spills, so future spills can be avoided.

“At least then they’d know what not to do,” he said.

To report sedimentation problems and other issues on the lake, or to learn more, visit lakewyliemarinecommission.com/who-to-call/.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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