Given the balkanized nature of local governments on James Island, it would have been easy for them to point fingers at one another regarding who should tackle the costly and complicated problem of addressing high contamination levels in James Island Creek. Instead, the opposite has happened, and we urge the city and county of Charleston, the town of James Island, public utilities and others to maintain their cooperation until the creek finally is clean.
The James Island Creek Task Force is poised to begin its second year of a five-year testing plan to learn more about the potential sources of contamination, which is crucial to addressing them. Old and failing septic tanks in the suburban neighborhoods along the creek, also known as Ellis Creek to some locals, seem to be the primary reason it is a dicey place to swim or fish.
The group received good news recently as state Rep. Spencer Wetmore helped secure $1 million in the state budget that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will hold for future pollution cleanup along the creek, and the governments hope to secure millions more to help hook up homes on septic tanks to existing or extended sewer lines. The South Carolina Infrastructure Investment Program has about $900 million in federal COVID recovery dollars that it plans to grant to efforts to improve water, wastewater and stormwater systems across the state.
The city, county and town are sharing the cost of ongoing testing, which will cost up to $67,000 (from about $50,000 this year), but the extra cost will involve new sampling points to identify problem spots. That information should help utilities identify which fixes could bring the biggest bang for the buck.
Meanwhile, the town of James Island approved a new septic tank ordinance that provides a free inspection for the roughly 400 homes on septic systems that are both in the town and near the creek. The ordinance also requires regular inspections of household septic systems every three years, but the town expects to enforce that requirement only when a problem emerges with one of them. (DHEC permits septic systems but essentially leaves it up to local governments to police them.)
Charleston City Council should follow through with its own ordinance. It is drafting one patterned after Folly Beach’s ordinance, which requires a septic tank inspection prior to the sale of any property; copies must be provided to any occupant, to the property owner and to the city, which notes that a property owner is responsible for ensuring that the septic system is operating effectively. Council members could begin by making the ordinance applicable only to the few dozen city properties on septic near the creek, where there’s a known problem, then expand it citywide if it works well.
The town also tried an innovative step to reduce bacteria levels by creating more than a dozen pet waste stations along residential streets near the creek. Each station has a dedicated can, emptied regularly by the James Island Public Service District, and plastic bags for pet waste are monitored and replenished by a neighborhood volunteer.
At this point there are still unknowns, regarding not only the pace of those changes but also whether other factors, such as birds and wildlife, also are increasing the creek’s bacterial counts. But if additional studies confirm septic tanks are the greatest problem, and if the James Island Creek Task Force’s members can secure the millions of dollars to help hook up homes with failed systems to sewer lines, and if new laws prompt homeowners to better maintain the few septic systems that remain, the creek could get a cleaner bill of health in just a few years.
Time will tell if that’s possible, but everyone should keep working together to try to make it so.