The water quality in the Charleston Harbor estuaries has been deteriorating for years, while the monitoring has fallen off and efforts to maintain it for fishing or swimming aren’t stopping the degradation.
Sewer system discharge, rain runoff and litter are increasing as population growth and development turn a coastal town into a city. Recent research is damning, finding pollutants such as flame retardants, stain repellents and plastics in the tissue of marine animals.
Tests on rivers that feed the harbor, such as the Ashley, Cooper and Wando, and Shem Creek and other tidal streams continue to show high levels of fecal bacteria. Swimming or fishing “is definitely hit or miss, depending on where you are,” said Andrew Wunderley, the Charleston Waterkeeper, who samples water at various sites.
Meanwhile, funding has been lost, sampling sites have been shut down and testing cut back.
So far, the hodgepodge of testing suggests the water overall is still relatively healthy, researchers say. But the concern is real.
Marathon swimmer Kathleen Wilson is probably in the water as much as anyone in the Lowcountry, training in one-to-five mile stretches in the winter in the upper Wando, near James Island where she lives, and occasionally around the Charleston peninsula in both the lower Cooper and Ashley.
“I have never had a problem. I have never been sick,” she said. “I’ve been in some suspect areas; I swam around Manhattan.”
Still, she would like a better idea of what the waves are slapping up in her face. It crosses her mind every now and then, particularly as she makes her way around the busy downtown marinas.
“I do once in a while get a little willies,” she said. Emerging pollutants like the retardants, “those are the unknowns,” she said. “Those are some of the risks of swimming open water and doing what I do.”
What’s known about the discharges into the harbor basin is staggering.
Hundreds of thousands of pounds of oxygen-depleting pollutants are dropped into the water as treated wastes each day, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control reports. The reports do not test for specific pollutants, just for indicators of oxygen depletion.
More than 45,000 pounds of toxic chemicals have been dumped in the basin each year, according to 2010 Environmental Protection Agency records analyzed by Environmental America in 2012. The report did not specify which chemicals were found in the basin among the 231 toxins searched for in the reports.
Those loads are within regulatory standards.
The Charleston Waterkeeper has been monitoring for fecal bacteria — animal and human waste — at 12 to 15 popular boat landings, beaches and stream sites in the harbor basin over the past two years. Its report recommends against swimming in nine and advises caution on a 10th.
Dolphins and other sea life have been found to be absorbing flame retardants, stain repellents, pharmaceuticals, clothing fibers — all of it suspected to be from “treated” wastewater discharge — in studies by the National Ocean Service Center, the Hollings Marine Laboratory, the National Ocean Services lab, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Medical University of South Carolina.
So much litter is out there that a recent Summerville Saltwater Anglers clean-up of 3.5 miles of the upper Ashley River between the Jessen boat landing and Middleton Place came back with more than 3 tons that included oil cans, spray paint cans and rubber toys. A recent study by The Citadel estimated more than 7 tons of plastics sit by the water or under tidal water around Charleston Harbor at any given time.
The study, “Plastic to Microplastic: Decomposition of Three Common Plastic Polymers in a Salt Marsh Habitat,” found the load is breaking down within four to eight weeks to microplastics that are absorbed by aquatic food like shrimp, and can kill them, the study found.
“The eight-week finding suggests to me that these microscopic plastic fragments could potentially be harming the overall health of our ecosystems,” said Cadet Brittany Crocker, who conducted The Citadel study with physiology professor John Weinstein.
An earlier study by the College of Charleston found startling amounts of microplastics in oysters. Ongoing studies at the college are finding alarming quantities of microfibers and microplastics in the tiny crustaceans that make up the base of the marine food chain, and recently in eagle feces — higher up the chain.
The only overall plan in place to manage any of the pollution is the federal mandate to limit the discharge of pollutants that dissolve the oxygen needed for healthy waters, that led to the state reports to the EPA.
The most recent report, for 2014, is not yet released and now under federal review. According to an analysis of the draft report by Charleston Waterkeeper, for some 85 sites where water was found to be impaired in waterways feeding Charleston Harbor, 39 didn’t meet the standard for fecal bacteria.
Other problems included organism-killing dissolved oxygen, toxic mercury and ammonia nitrate and metals. On top of that are the unknowns, the load of stuff such as the retardants that are known health concerns but not tested for.
“DHEC does a good job monitoring the conventional pollutants,” said Wunderley of Charleston Waterkeeper. “The problem is, there hasn’t been a lot of support on the political level for taking that extra step. As a result, we don’t get more than these minimal levels of protection.”
Money is getting harder to find for even the conventional pollutant testing.
The closest thing to a measure of overall water quality is the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ biennial assessment of estuarine and coastal health. The program ran into funding cutbacks and staff loss; the last one published was for 2009-2010, although a new one is in the works, expected to be published this fall.
That 2009-2010 report noted a slight improvement “bump” in overall coastal water quality. But it noted the only poor habitat in the state was in an industrial stretch of the Cooper River at Flagg Creek, across from the Naval Weapons Station in Hanahan. Meanwhile, in Charleston Harbor, two Ashley River sites and Shem Creek were noted as fair.
But sampling frequency has been cut back, and only three to five sites per year are tested in Charleston Harbor, according to Denise Sanger, DNR environmental scientist.
Between 2009 and 2011, DHEC’s funding was cut across the board and water quality programs were affected, said spokesman Jim Beasley. DHEC’s strategy for 2015 in the basin calls for sampling 10 sites six times per year and a random site once per month, while leaving 15 inactive sites, he said.
Wunderley said there are now 61 inactive sites that historically have been monitored. The gaps in sampling led to the Waterkeeper monitoring, a seasonal effort focused specifically on safety for summer recreational use.
The breakdown isn’t pretty.
Waterkeeper samples 15 sites once a week that are not tested by DHEC. In those samples, “we can see extreme fluctuations (in water quality) with rainfall and tide,” said Cheryl Carmack, staff scientist.
Wunderley uses Shem Creek, the popular boating, paddling and paddleboarding destination, as an example of the problem.
“We maintain (DHEC sampling) is simply not enough data for good regulatory decision-making,” he said.
The site at the Coleman Boulevard bridge hasn’t been sampled by the state since 2011, Wunderley said, and Beasley confirmed that. Waterkeeper, on the other hand, has pulled nearly 130 samples from its three sites in the creek and the creek continues to fail to meet the standard for recreation for fecal bacteria alone, the only pollutant tested.
In 2006, a breakthrough study by Sanger and Fred Holland, then the federal Hollings Marine Laboratory director, indicated that when 30 percent of the surrounding land is impervious, or covered, polluted rain runoff causes shellfish beds to be closed to harvest, the numbers of shrimp to decline and the marine food web suffers.
The study also indicated that damage begins at 10 percent. At that time, Hollings Marine Lab surveys indicated Charleston County had 14 percent impervious surface. Since then, the county has grown by more than 40,000 people.
“The majority of studies have shown the overall water quality is pretty good in Charleston Harbor,” said biomolecular researcher Michael Fulton of the Center for Coastal Environment and Health Research at Fort Johnson. But Fulton follows that by saying his concern is to keep it from deteriorating as the population grows.
As for emerging contaminants, “I don’t know that there’s testing in place that would be designed to detect it,” he said.
The further back into the tidal estuaries you go, Wunderley said, the more likely it is you’ll see weirder things going on.
“We’re allowing these things into the system at such an overwhelming rate that we’re starting to see in data it’s causing problems. That’s something we’re really going to have to work on as a community. The more we build, and the more impervious surface we have, the more of these problems we’re going to have. I think the science bears that out well,” he said.
Louis Camblor of Charleston won’t take his boat out often to the “swimming hole” beach island in Charleston Harbor between Fort Johnson and Fort Sumter, with its vista of the peninsula and the Ravenel Bridge. But that has more to do with the water being shallow and easy to get stuck than how healthy it is.
“You never know what’s underneath there,” he said. As for pollutants, though, “I wouldn’t mind seeing somebody take some samples. I see a lot of families with kids out there.”
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