One old pipe nearly ran a whole county dry. So, should the public worry about it happening again?
Top state health department officials met with U.S. Rep. Ralph Norman and state Sen. Wes Climer on Friday morning in Rock Hill to talk water service. The discussion centered on legislative work mostly unrelated to the pipe burst Wednesday that spilled about 30 million gallons from the water filter plant on Cherry Road.
The spill did, however, come up in conversation.
“We’re going to continue to partner with Rock Hill and the county, and sit down and kind of do a hot wash of what happened,” said Myra Reece, environmental affairs administration director with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. “From a continuous improvement standpoint, what are some things that we can learn from this?”
Water and wastewater spills in the state are somewhat common. To date this year there have been 250 wastewater spills statewide, nine just in the tri-county area. Water spills range from contractors hitting a line in construction to Wednesday’s spill where a 20-inch cast iron pipe rupture, putting 120,000 customers under a boil water advisory, many without water or normal water pressure.
Rock Hill officials brought a piece of the broken pipe to a press conference Thursday. That one pipe served a system well beyond Rock Hill. The city sells water to Fort Mill, Tega Cay, York and York County. The county sends it to more customers, including Blue Granite Water Company, which distributes in through Lake Wylie. The burst pipe put all non-well water users in the county under the boil notice.
Fort Mill debated adding its own water plant and Lake Wylie intake several years ago, but opted against it due to high costs compared to buying from Rock Hill. Tega Cay went through major changes in recent years including buying the former Tega Cay Water Service in 2014 after a rash of wastewater spills. Tega Cay still buys from Rock Hill. York was out of water when Mayor Eddie Lee came onboard in 2002, he said, before agreeing to get it from Rock Hill.
Reece said Rock Hill isn’t alone in having a widespread customer base relying on a critical utility service.
“I think what happened in Rock Hill really emphasized what the vulnerability of the system (is) and the large number of customers that are served,” she said. “It’s not uncommon with some of the larger systems to have that many taps on the system, whether its spread out over a county or a smaller, more dense area.”
As of a year ago South Carolina had 40 investor-owned water or wastewater utilities ranging from less than 100 customers to almost 15,000. Those numbers don’t include municipal, county and public service district utilities. In 2018 the state had 236 facilities drawing groundwater or surface water for public water supply use.
York County sites drew almost 7.8 billion gallons of water in 2018 just for public water supply. Counties like Horry, Greenville and others with high populations drew even more. Charleston County combined groundwater and surface water to use more than 25 billion gallons.
Reece said her organization routinely performs vulnerability assessments in hopes of avoiding something like the Rock Hill spill. It’s more than just old pipes, she said.
“It really highlights and elevates the need for us to be thinking about the vulnerability of systems not only with this case which had aging infrastructure, but during natural disasters and stuff like that,” Reece said.
Mayor John Gettys and other Rock Hill officials on Thursday spoke about their own work to make the city system less vulnerable. Gettys emphasized Wednesday’s spill was like nothing the city has seen, for a reason.
“This is a unique event,” he said. “No one can recall, or we cannot recall, a time in the history of this city.”
For at least 20 years the city has been evaluating its water lines and replacing them as needed. The broken pipe Wednesday was itself scheduled to come offline within 18 months.
“This was not worker negligence,” Gettys said. “This was not contractor-driven. This was not anything other than an old pipe that has been under the ground since 1949 had outlived its life.”
Part of keeping events like the one Wednesday from happening again involve something most customers typically don’t like — utility bills. Gettys said his council emphasizes to the city staff the need to stay ahead of infrastructure needs, which means funding them through electric, water, sewer and stormwater rates.
“We have to continue to invest in our infrastructure,” Gettys said. “This is a real world example of why it is so important that we pay to get that infrastructure underground, above ground, wherever it is throughout our system, so that things like this don’t happen.
“This is the first time this has happened in the City of Rock Hill’s history, and we don’t want a second.”
Reece, joined by DHEC director Rick Toomey and legislative affairs director Rick Caldwell at Friday’s meeting with legislators, said her department plans to continue work with utilities statewide to keep water flowing.
“We’re constantly working and partnering with our water utilities and providers to keep planning and trying to stay ahead and improve things when we see vulnerability,” Reece said.
Part of the state help includes water testing.
DHEC officials met in Rock Hill Friday as the area remained under a boil water advisory. On Thursday, Gettys stated it would be the health department’s determination of when water is safe to consume again. And that will dictate when the city lifts the advisory.
“They are the experts, and we’re following the rules as they lay them out,” Gettys said.
Despite the water problems so many people in the area faced this week, Reece praised staff and leadership in Rock Hill for their response. She said Friday morning she was hopeful her department would be able to lift the advisory soon.
“Rock Hill did a remarkable job responding as quickly as they did in doing the repair of that line and getting the availability of water back to the folks that rely on the system here in the county,” Reece said. “And hopefully this afternoon we’ll get good results back so we can lift that boil water advisory.”