SC water systems allowed to avoid lead testing for years

State regulators have allowed at least 20 water systems to avoid lead pollution testing for up to nine years under a law officials now say is too lenient amid growing concerns about exposure to lead, a toxic metal that can cause brain damage in children.

All of the systems were relatively small, ranging from a mobile home park near Columbia to a Pee Dee school and the town of Ware Shoals in the Upstate, state records show.

A handful of industrial plants and two coastal water districts also were among those allowed to wait nine years between lead tests, according to data released by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

While not all of the systems waited the full nine years, DHEC officials said this week they no longer will allow water providers that flexibility.

“We can do better,’’ DHEC’s David Baize said.

The department plans to require lead tests at least every three years for all small water systems and annually for schools, colleges and universities with their own water systems, said Baize, an assistant water bureau chief at DHEC.

DHEC’s decision to require testing annually for schools is particularly important because of lead’s threat to young children, officials said. Lead, a heavy metal, can cause learning disabilities in youngsters. It is primarily a threat from certain types of paint and soil, but lead also is a concern even at microscopic levels in drinking water.

“Children are a more sensitive population, and we want to go just above and beyond the rule for that population,’’ Baize said.

Luckily, the agency hasn’t found evidence that lead caused any health problems, officials said Thursday.

DHEC had been allowing some systems the freedom to test every nine years under a federal law that regulates lead and copper in drinking water. Under the federal law, water systems could gain leniency by proving over time that lead had not previously shown up in water systems at unsafe levels.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said he’s glad DHEC is making changes, but the agency should have been more tightly monitoring drinking water years ago.

“To simply fall back on a statement that says the regulations allowed this is not a panacea for what is wrong,’’ Neal said Thursday. “It is, in fact, a poor excuse for failure to protect the health and welfare of the public.”

Neal has been critical of DHEC for what he said is a failure to properly oversee drinking water in small, community systems. Neal said the case of Franklin Park is one of the worst in which DHEC did not protect drinking water, and the agency’s failure there still resonates with him.

That system, in Hopkins, southeast of Columbia, registered elevated lead levels in some people’s homes over 20 years. But despite knowledge of the problem, DHEC didn’t ensure the water was cleaned up until The State newspaper wrote about the issue in 2005.

Baize said the recent water crisis in Flint, Mich., has caused the department to examine how it can improve monitoring and oversight for lead contamination and other problems in drinking water. DHEC officials say they doubt a Flint-like problem would occur here, but they want to intensify efforts to ensure drinking water remains safe.

Those include changes to the monitoring program and studying the reasons lead has shown up in the drinking water of at least 28 small systems. The agency also plans to open an Office of Rural Water.

According to agency records, systems given nine years between lead tests include:

▪ The Georgetown County Water and Sewer district’s Wedgefield water system, which has more than 1,000 customers.

▪ The Emma Terrace water system in Lexington County, which serves 65 people.

▪ The House of Raeford poultry business water system in Williamsburg County, which serves 1,330 people.

▪ Devro-Teepak, an industrial plant in Calhoun County, which serves 350 people.

<▪ DP Cooper Elementary School in Williamsburg County, which serves 193.

▪ Coosawhatchie Daycare Center in Jasper County, which serves 79 people.

▪ Horrell Hill Mobile Home park in Richland County, which serves 55 people.

Some water system officials said their utilities were tested more frequently than nine years, but not always by much. Georgetown County Water and Sewer didn’t test drinking water at Wedgefield, a riverfront community, from 2007 until 2015, director Ray Gagnon said.

Gagnon said there was no need to test more frequently because lead had not shown up in samples in 2007 and because much of the service lines are not made of lead. The 2015 lead levels also were within safe limits, he said.

“After passing it year after year after year for 20 years, (DHEC) decided they would save us some money’’ by reducing the amount of monitoring, he said.

Kerry Singleton, principal at DP Cooper Elementary in Salters, said he was not aware of any lead in the school’s drinking water. He was not sure when the system was last tested.

“We have not had any problems over the years, nor do we have any current issues with the safety or quality of the water,’’ he said in an email.

An official with the town of Ware Shoals, which serves 2,363 customers, referred calls about water testing to a Greenwood County water district, which said the responsibility lay with the town.

In addition to requiring more frequent testing for schools and other small water systems, Baize said DHEC also is addressing another testing problem that arose after the agency recently began re-evaluating its drinking water program: DHEC also allowed a handful of water systems that did have high lead levels to avoid testing as frequently as they should have been.

State and federal laws require any system to test semi-annually until the lead levels are verified within acceptable levels. But in about 10 cases, the agency did not require that, Baize said. He said an agency staff member who was in charge of making sure more frequent testing occurred has been “counseled’’ on the matter.

Last month, DHEC revealed that its review of water systems found 28 of the state’s nearly 700 water systems had exceeded the safe drinking water standard for lead.

Meanwhile, the agency listed the Clemson University water system as having the flexibility to test only every nine years, but Baize said Clemson apparently was mistakenly listed. Systems that have been allowed to test only every nine years must have good records and serve fewer than 3,300 customers. The Clemson system served twice that number. The university said it last tested in 2013 and found no unsafe lead levels after having problems with elevated levels in the late 1990s.

Infrequent testing

SC water systems not required to monitor for lead for nine years

  • C&H MHP, Aiken, 21 customers
  • Green Like Wood Industries, Bamberg, 40
  • Lake View MHP, Beaufort, 114
  • Santee Cooper Regional Water, Berkeley, 25
  • Devro Teepak, Calhoun, 350
  • Middleton Place, Dorchester, 85
  • GWSD – Wedgefield, Georgetown, 1,022
  • Ware Shoals, town of, Greenwood, 2,363
  • Mitchell MHP, Greenwood, 48
  • Elliott Sawmill, Hampton, 170
  • Hampton Co. Industrial Park, Hampton, 90
  • Coosawhatchie Day Care, Jasper, 79
  • CWS – Emma Terrace, Lexington, 65
  • Timber Lake II, Oconee, 96
  • Horrell Hill MPH, Richland, 55
  • Granada Subdivision, Sumter, 148
  • House of Raeford, Williamsburg, 1,330
  • DP Cooper Elementary, Williamsburg, 193
  • Carroll MHP 2 , York, 58
  • CWS – Lexington Estates, 394

Source: S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control