EPA serves notice on utility after Tega Cay sewage spills

jmarks@fortmilltimes.comFebruary 20, 2014 

— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has joined S.C. regulators in serving notice on Tega Cay Water Service.

The EPA issued a notice of violation Thursday to parent company Utilities, Inc. The notice, which follows a joint inspection by the EPA and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control back in December, lists “at least 27” wastewater spills from the start of 2013 to Jan. 2 of this year resulting in 446,350 gallons of untreated sewage being discharged into Lake Wylie.

“At least 18 of the (spills) discharged untreated sewage to navigable waters of the United States,” the EPA release states.

The EPA’s notice follows DHEC’s Feb. 3 consent order which includes a $136,000 fine.

The EPA notice requires the company to follow guidelines for updating and improving its system outlined in DHEC’s order. The EPA will monitor the utility’s progress as it develops an improvement plan and repairs wastewater treatment plants and other infrastructure during the next two years.

Utilities, Inc. may be subject to “additional enforcement action” until the work is complete, according to the EPA.

“EPA hasn’t assessed any penalties in conjunction with this order,” said agency spokesperson Davina Marraccini. “However, until consistent compliance is achieved, the Tega Cay Water Services’ wastewater collection and transmission system is considered to be in violation of the Clean Water Act and may be subject to additional enforcement action, including potential penalties.”

Tega Cay Water Service company representatives could not be reached on Thursday late afternoon.

Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard called Thursday’s announcement “encouraging.” Having the state and federal group on the same page is a positive for the city, he said. Sheppard is hopeful more agencies, sucn as the state Public Service Commission and Office of Regulatory Staff, will come aboard in working to stop the spills.

“It’s good that organizations are working together,” he said. “It’s going to take a concerted effort.”

Resident Linda Stevenson, a member of the Tega Cay Water Citizen Advisory Council, said she’s hopeful the EPA mandate makes a difference.

“I have hopes,” she said. “Somebody has got to do something.”

Stevenson’s group worked with the Southern Environmental Law Center on possible litigation against the utility company, but that effort ended with announcement of DHEC’s recent consent order requiring essentially what the litigation would have requested. The consent order gave 30 days to submit improvement and customer service plans, and require a complete sewer main fix in 12 months and system-wide fix in 18 months, among other mandates.

Stevenson’s group is now focused on monitoring the required work.

“Prayers do happen,” she said of whether the spills will stop, “and sometimes they work.”

Tega Cay officials are in negotiations to purchase Tega Cay Water Service. Sheppard said Thursday there hasn’t been significant movement in the past week or so as the city awaits detailed financial information from a system study. The utility recently proposed selling its assets in Tega Cay for $7.86 million.

Should the city of Tega Cay buy the utility system, DHEC officials say they would work with city officials to determine and accomplish the improvements mandated in the consent order.

Ongoing repairs

On Tuesday, the Public Service Commission met with Tega Cay Water Service in Columbia to discuss progress on the consent order. The company’s president laid out an interim plan for stopping the spills.

Along with DHEC, the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff is monitoring the company’s progress. The ORS inspects, audits and examines privately-owned utilities in South Carolina.

Dukes Scott, ORS executive director, was at Tuesday’s meeting with the Tega Cay Water Service.

It's a matter of "when" not "if" the utility company asks the Public Service Commission for a rate increase again, Scott said. When a utility company applies for a rate increase, his office evaluates the application and makes a recommendation to the commission, which is responsible for the final determination.

Capital investments made to the sewage system under DHEC's recent consent order could be used later as justification of a rate increase.

It's been almost one year since Tega Cay Water Service applied for its most recent rate increase. The utility could soon apply again as state law only requires companies to wait one year between rate increase applications.

Scott said Tega Cay Water Service has not yet initiated with his office an application for a rate increase. Utility companies must give the public service commission one month's notice before applying for a rate increase.

Lake Wylie Marine Commissioner Neil Brennan attended the service commission meeting, too.

Tasked with looking after “the welfare of the lake,” the marine commission should discuss the sewage spill issue when it meets Monday, he said. The commission will meet at 7 p.m. at Pleasant Hill Presbyterian Church, located at 15000 York Rd., in Charlotte.

Brennan was glad to hear this week the utility company’s president acknowledge “we’ve got a problem,” he said.

“It appears the company is interested in fixing the problem,” Brennan said.

Now, he said, he wants to see the company's detailed plan to fix the spills.

John Marks •  803-831-8166 Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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