A round of water quality tests that were done to determine if high levels of the bacteria E. coli were leeching from Horry County’s landfill into the surrounding waters of Sterritt Swamp came in much lower than a previous test, but experts say those two tests are far from enough to draw any conclusions about how the landfill may or may not be impacting its neighbors.
The most recent water quality tests were done after a local blogger told Horry County Council members last week that he and a whistleblower from the Solid Waste Authority had worked together to test one pond and one outflow at the landfill in February, and that their water test revealed high levels of E. coli.
But when Coastal Carolina University scientists — escorted by county officials and police — took their own samples and conducted a second round of tests on the same waters last week, the E. coli levels came in much lower, and closer to historical levels.
The water tests done by the blogger and whistleblower estimated that nearly 40,000 E. coli bacteria were present in a 100 milliliter of water sample taken from the landfill. But the tests done by CCU scientists estimated that only 52 to 3,873 E. coli bacteria were present in a 100 milliliter water sample taken from the same locations. The Environmental Protection Agency says that bodies of water with 235 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water or less is safe for boating, fishing and swimming. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control’s standard for recreation is higher, 349 E. coli per 100 milliliters of water.
The waters of Sterritt Swamp are rarely used for recreation, and though those waters eventually feed into the Waccamaw River, which is used for drinking water, water quality experts say contaminants like E. coli have a chance to filter out before that point.
Those conclusions have left two water quality experts — as well as county officials — saying they can’t draw any conclusions about what the two tests mean, and that the landfill cannot be blamed for any contamination at this point in time. It’s possible, the experts have said, that the masses of Seagulls that dine at the landfill could have caused the E. coli spikes through their droppings.
“We do not currently have a reason to believe that this outfall directly impacts the water quality of Sterritt Swamp or the Waccamaw River,” Horry County spokesperson Kelly Moore said in a statement Monday. “Ultimately, it is premature, and inappropriate to draw conclusions from one or two pieces of data. As such, this review will continue until the concerns are addressed.”
Still, the blogger, David Hucks from myrtlebeachsc.com, as well as some county leaders continue to suspect that landfill operations should be scrutinized. The Solid Waste Authority should be investigated, they say, to determine if its contaminating the surrounding environment, and, by extension, people’s homes and drinking water. But others, including leaders of the authority, say the landfill is operating transparently and up to all local, state and federal standards and that the concerns about E. coli are little more than a false pretext to denigrate the agency.
“It’s always political, or it’s sour grapes,” Solid Waste Authority Director Danny Knight said last week.
The ultimate aim of turning the authority into a political issues, Knight and others have said, is to ultimately dissolve the organization and bring landfill operations under the purview of the county administration and council. Some worry doing so would open up the landfill to undue influence from private garbage companies.
On Monday, Knight added that he was confident water quality tests would absolve the waste authority of any concerns.
“It’s not a major concern, we just have to find out a little more about the scientific side of it,” he said.
What’s left now, as the county continues to investigate the concerns about E. coli at the landfill, is a confounding situation in which some county leaders want to dig deeper into how the Solid Waste Authority operates, others view the concerns as bunk and others still — including the water quality experts — say there’s simply not enough information available to draw any conclusions one way or another.
Pam Creech, a member of the Solid Waste Authority’s board of directors that oversees the agency, summed it up this way:
“If the people are (raising concerns) for the wrong reasons, shame on them. If they’re doing it for the right reasons, I applaud them,” she said. “(As) I’ve said many a day, if there’s a problem here we need to make it public and the next thing we need to do is fix it.”
E. coli pollution? Or not?
Cara Schildtknecht, the Waccamaw riverkeeper with the Winyah Rivers Alliance, who oversees a volunteer water-testing program, agreed with the county’s assessment that last week’s water tests weren’t enough to draw any conclusions from. The Sun News shared the results of last week’s tests with Schildtknecht, who reviewed the data.
“It is difficult to determine whether or not there is polluted water entering Sterritt Swamp from the Solid Waste Authority’s landfill,” she said in an email. “This is one sample result and does not give a comprehensive view of what is going on out there. To prove anything, there would need to be more sampling.”
Schildtknecht suggested that dozens of tests at the same locations over a longer period of time — perhaps a year or more — would allow scientists and water quality experts to draw conclusions about why E. coli is present in the waters tested, where it’s coming from, and why.
“The problem is we can’t answer that question,” said Danielle Viso, operations manager at CCU’s Environmental Quality Lab. “We just don’t have enough information to answer any questions”
Viso sampled and analyzed the water from two locations within the county landfill and two locations in Sterritt Swamp last week. She said little could be concluded from the tests.
“The only thing we’ve really gained from this, is someone said they obtained some high results from the samples,” she said.
In a video posted on YouTube about the water tests, Hucks claimed the results showed that “garbage is clearly leaking from” the landfill into Sterritt Swamp.
In fact, the opposite may be true, according to the data. Tests done at the landfill outflow that feed into the swamp showed much lower levels of E. coli than tests routinely done in the swamp itself.
“Outfall 4 appears to go directly into the South Prong of Sterritt Swamp, but had very low bacteria concentrations. That’s a good thing,” Schildtknecht said. “(That) could indicate that management practices for containing bacteria on the site are working before water leaves the site and enters the swamp.”
How we got here
At a county council meeting last Tuesday, Hucks told council members on the Infrastructure & Regulation subcommittee that a person within the Solid Waste Authority had contacted him and said they were worried that the landfill was pushing water with high levels of E. coli off of its property and into the surrounding Sterritt Swamp. Some strains of E. coli can give people diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses or pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hucks told council that the whistleblower had collected their own water samples of several landfill ponds and handed them off to Hucks, who drove them to Columbia for testing. Results of those tests found high levels of E. coli in the water samples.
Council member Al Allen, among those who question how the Solid Waste Authority is run, asked county police to investigate.
So, on Wednesday last week, county administrators, including County Administrator Steve Gosnell, Viso, from CCU, and county police officers descended on the Solid Waste Authority’s Conway landfill to collect their own water samples in an attempt to to verify if levels of E. coli in ponds are potentially harmful to residents.
A collection error on Wednesday actually sent Viso back to the sampling locations Thursday for a second round of collections, and test results were ready by the end of the week. But, Viso said, it’s not clear that those tests served any real purpose.
“I’m not sure what the purpose of all of that was,” she said Monday. “It felt like it was probably more, ‘This is something that concerns a lot of people, there are a lot of parties involved, and people wanted to make sure that whatever the results were,’” they were on top of it.
Still, Allen and other county leaders have said they intend to get to the bottom of any concerns raised about the landfill.
“With the growth around here it is extremely important for us to stay on top of whats happening to the water quality within this area,” Allen said last week. “If the Horry County Solid Waste Authority is responsible for that and if it turns out that there is some site contamination, that will have to be handled and dealt with immediately. It would warrant further investigation from the council and that’s going to be a council decision.”
What happens now
Throughout its history, the Solid Waste Authority has been transformed into a political football a number of times — sometimes legitimately, sometimes not — and some say that cycle is playing out yet again. Someone raises concerns about the authority or the landfill, a county leader suggests the county take over control of the agency, and back-and-forth debate ensues.
“There has been a faction in Horry County for some time that wants to see the Solid Waste Authority come back under the county and be a county agency and that has been going on since I’ve been on council,” Council member Johnny Vaught said last week. “And I don’t know what their motives are…but that issue has been out there before and we’ve discussed it before.”
Council Chairman Johnny Gardner said he supported Allen and the Infrastructure & Regulation committee looking into the concerns. But not all members of that committee are convinced it is severe as Hucks and others claim.
“If the (whistleblower’s) report can be verified its concerning. If it can’t be verified, I don’t now what to make of it,” Council member Dennis DiSabato, who serves on the I&R committee, said.
Council member Mark Causey, who also serves on the committee, said he didn’t have enough information to offer a full opinion of the Solid Waste Authority, but said he supports both getting “to the bottom of” the concerns, and keeping the waste authority as a separate entity. As it’s set up now, Causey said, the authority appears to be good at solving any problems that arise.
“I didn’t like those numbers we saw at I&R,” he said. “(But) over the years, it’s been my experience that the Solid Waste Authority, on the environmental side, they’ve done a real good job for the most part.”
For his part, Hucks said he doesn’t plan to let up on the Solid Waste Authority any time soon. In addition to E. coli, Hucks said he’s worried about heavy metals leeching into Sterritt Swamp from the landfill.
“I’m going to ask what we’re going to do as we continue to grow,” he said Monday. “That landfill is not going to get less important. The bottom line is we need better safeguards for the residents of Horry County, and we’re not going to stop growing.”