South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

DHEC Responds to Push to Raise Water Quality Standard
Posted: July 11, 2019

For immediate release

TUESDAY, JULY 11, 2019 — The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) said it is initiating rulemaking to require more protective water quality standards for recreational saltwaters throughout the state, as requested in our recent petition.

The petition—submitted to DHEC on June 25 on behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper—urged the agency to impose the more protective enterococci standard for Class SB waters, a class of waters that includes Shem Creek, Charleston Harbor as a whole, Folly River, and Wappoo Creek among others.

Enterococci are bacteria that indicate the presence of fecal waste and can lead to illness and disease. The current enterococci standard for Class SB waters is 501 MPN/100 mL, a standard that allows five-times more bacteria than Class SA waters, even though both SB and SA waters are used for the same recreational purposes, such as paddling and swimming.

We are seeking the more protective and consistent Class SA standard of 104 MPN/100 mL to be used for all recreational saltwaters in the state. Such a change would emphasize the severity of bacteria impairment in all coastal waters and highlight cleanup priorities for regulators, polluters, and the public.

In an email on Wednesday, July 10, DHEC told lawyers for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP), who filed the petition on the Waterkeeper’s behalf, that it will “initiate action consistent with your petition.” The agency said our proposed change is part of the its broader triennial water quality standards review and plans to include our request in a “Notice of Proposed Regulation” at a DHEC Board meeting next month.

Such a notice will kick off a comment period that will allow the public and stakeholders to weigh in on our proposal, according to DHEC.

“We applaud DHEC for acknowledging the need for water quality standards which are more protective of public health, and for taking steps to implement these more protective standards,” said Amy Armstrong, Executive Director of SCELP.

“This is the right action by DHEC,” said Andrew Wunderley, Executive Director and Waterkeeper at Charleston Waterkeeper. “We will stand with all those who love to swim, paddle, and sail in our coastal waterways and stay active on this issue to make sure the new more protective standards become law.”

BACKGROUND: The petition stems from the Charleston Waterkeeper’s work in testing and improving the water quality of Shem Creek, one of Charleston County’s most popular tidal creeks that’s used for fishing, paddling, swimming, and other recreational uses. Shem Creek’s Class SB water quality designation is significantly less protective than Class SA, despite prolific recreational uses of Shem Creek and other Class SB waters throughout the state.

Since 2013, Charleston Waterkeeper has tested more than 380 samples from three distinct locations in Shem Creek, and their results consistently show extreme excess of acceptable levels of enterococci. On average, Shem Creek’s enterococci count is 830 MPN/100 mL, nearly twice the Class SB standard of 501 MPN/100 mL, and eight times the Class SA standard of 104 MPN/100 mL.

UPDATE

On November 7, 2019, the DHEC Board unanimously agreed on the "need and reasonableness" of the proposed amendment to regulation 61-68 and granted submission to the General Assembly for approval.

SCELP Staff Attorney Leslie Lenhardt explained to the board members at a public hearing why the enterococci standard should be changed from 501 to 104 for Class SB waters.

“If you drop the level to be consistent with all saltwater bodies to 104, then you have a much more accurate read and picture of what the water quality is,” she said. “And that’s not just for Shem Creek, that would be for all along the coast. It’s very, very, very important that we do that so that we can place the proper focus and work with local governments to clean that water up….It just makes sense because all saltwater should really have the same level.”

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project (SCELP) protects the natural environment of South Carolina by providing legal services and advice to environmental organizations and concerned citizens and by improving the state’s system of environmental regulation.

Charleston Waterkeeper’s mission is to protect and restore Charleston’s Waterways for our community and for future generations. We do that through unique mix of boots-on-the-water stewardship and data-driven advocacy designed to protect the public’s right to clean water for fishing and swimming.

Media contact:

Andrew Wunderley Executive Director & Waterkeeper Charleston Waterkeeper [email protected], (843) 906-7073

Amy Armstrong, Esquire Executive Director South Carolina Environmental Law Project [email protected], (843) 527-0078