Gus Matchunis doesn’t need the environmental cost of sewage spills explained to him. He still has the picture seared in his mind.
“That’s what put me over the edge,” said Matchunis, a Tega Cay resident, whose family swam in a cove off Tega Place last Labor Day as an estimated 1,000 gallons of wastewater entered the lake less than 100 yards away.
“There were guys out there in HAZMAT suits and my kids are swimming in it. That’s what did it for me.”
Two boys and a girl, ages 7 to 9, didn’t get sick that day. Sarah Matchunis said she can’t count the times her children got a cut that turned into MRSA or other bacterial infections over the years. The Matchuniss have lived in Tega Cay for 17 years and it always happens in summer, she said. Always after the children swim in the lake.
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“It has to be the water,” Sarah Matchunis said.
The official name for sewage spills is “sanitary sewer overflow.” According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, such overflows can carry bacteria, viruses, parasites, intestinal worms and inhaled molds and fungi. Related health impacts include mild or severe gastroenteritis, or stomach cramps with diarrhea. There’s also potential for life-threatening ailments such as cholera, dysentery and hepatitis.
Documented cases of disease have been caused by swimming in waters with high bacteria levels, both by inhalation and skin absorption. Children, the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems face the greatest risk.
But how severe are those risks, and for how long?
Dr. Peter Phillips teaches environmental biology at Winthrop University. He’s traveled internationally studying water quality, and led a water testing program for the Lake Wylie Covekeepers. Phillips said barring immediate contact with an overflow, there probably isn’t a “great impact” to public health from bacteria. Assuming people stay out of the water until bacteria tests show acceptable levels.
“It’s illegal, it’s noxious, it’s unsightly, it’s disgusting,” Phillips said of spills, “but we have regulations for a reason.”
Utilities must begin immediate bacteria testing following a spill. Testing continues until results show fecal coliform or E. coli colonies at or below a set limit. When Tega Cay Water Service released an estimated 178,000 gallons of wastewater Dec. 23, a “no swim” advisory lasted four days. Another, after a Dec. 27 spill of close to 15,000 gallons, lasted seven days.
The troubled utility, which blames spills on infrastructure and equipment that are long past their prime, is in the process of being sold to the City of Tega Cay.
Phillips said he “wouldn’t imagine” there’s a compounding effect, meaning multiple spills in the same spot shouldn’t do more harm than the same spills in different locations. There is a “background level” of bacteria, often higher in streams than lakes. Phillips said it’s “common” for his classes to collect stream samples in Rock Hill that exceed what would be deemed safe on the lake. Animals near streams and runoff are the main reasons.
Davina Marraccini, spokesperson for the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta, said repeated residential sewage spills into lakes can increase nitrogen, phosphorus or other nutrient levels leading to algae blooms. They can reduce dissolved oxygen levels, causing fish kills. But, Marraccini said, lingering environmental impacts are generally “minimal.”
“Compounding impacts from repeat spills are possible but not likely, unless spills occur very close together time-wise and are large volume-wise relative to the water body,” she said. “Compounding impacts are very site-specific and dependent upon the pollutants in the wastewater.”
The food chain
According to the EPA, one study found nearly 700 cases per year of sickness from sewage-contaminated shellfish during the 1980s. The study estimated undocumented cases at “20 times that.” Shellfish filter water and collect diseases, bacteria and biotoxins that can pass up the food chain.
Shellfish harvesting isn’t an issue on Lake Wylie, but the sewage issue can be.
A 2005 survey commissioned for Duke Energy’s hydroelectric relicensing application found 17 freshwater mussels in the Catawba River and its lakes, from the federally endangered Carolina heelsplitter to the rayed pink fatmucket. Many of those mussels in Lake Wylie end up in the bellies of larger catfish, some of which end up in boats or buckets.
According to the EPA, diseases and biotoxins can pass from filter-feeding mussels or the fish that consume them and then to humans.
Beyond bacteria, a wide range of potentially harmful substances may spread during a spill. Called endocratic disrupting compounds, substances that disrupt hormonal systems in animals can come from raw sewage. Birth control, personal care products, antibiotics, even some soaps may fall under the EDC banner believed to cause anything from behavior changes or reduced intelligence to altered gender in some animals.
“These are products that are reflections of our modern lifestyle,” Phillips said.
Quantifying the impact of EDCs isn’t easy, Phillips said, as many water and wastewater providers don’t have extensive testing for them. Science is still learning what impacts EDCs have on humans, he said.
Another threat comes from spills that never reach public waters. Before Linda Stevenson became the face of the Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council, she was a grandmother who spent an Easter with her family gathered in a house filled with sewage.
“I can tell you of the horror of living with those huge fans trying to dry the area, of things that cannot be replaced at any cost, of having workmen in your house for months, and the awful smells,” Stevenson said. “I had children and grandchildren in my house.”
According to the EPA, sewage backups into homes or onto lawns can present at least as great a public health threat as spills into lakes. Backups don’t bring the same reporting requirements and can be hard to quantify. Of the 112 resident complaints reported to her group in 2013, Stevenson said many were backups into basements. Almost a year ago Tega Cay resident Richard Dwyer had his single-level home flooded with sewage. Medical issues left his wife unable to leave the home and Dwyer wondered whether it was safe for the couple to live there.
Stevenson said she’s heard of pets that saw improved health when they stopped swimming in or drinking the lake water, but residents haven’t reported any human health issues following backups.
Experts agree the overall impact of sewage spills is dependent on when it happens, how big the water body is, what’s in the sewage and how much of it there is. They agree Lake Wylie’s size means residents at Ebenezer Park or downstream in Fort Mill won’t see health impacts from Tega Cay spills on the scale they’ve occurred. They also agree to the best response.
“In general, there is not much that can be done following a spill,” Marraccini said.
Contaminants flush out naturally, dissipating into the larger water body. There’s no way to retrieve or treat them.
“You can’t clean the body of water that way, by filtering it,” Phillips said. “There’s just too much.”
Aerating water to increase dissolved oxygen can help prevent fish kills, Marraccini said. Her organization “does not recommend adding chemicals to the lake directly to treat the spill.” The best and only solution to neutralize the health threat of a spill is time.
Matchunis, with boating season here, wonders if settled sewage will be underfoot. And he wonders if it will come up should the cove ever need dredging.
Matchunis isn’t an environmental expert, but he’s come up with one more plan for avoiding a spill this summer, and it isn’t avoiding the boat and wakeboards.
“I will go a few miles up the lake,” he said.