New aid effort targets ‘third-world’ conditions on Wadmalaw

Nellie Bennett Boykin and her six grandchildren live in a Wadmalaw Island house that she said does not have drinkable tap water or heat.

WADMALAW ISLAND — Nellie Bennett Boykin’s open electric oven cast some warmth in the house where she and her six grandchildren live.

Outside, mid-morning temperatures were near freezing.

“We’re so cold,” Boykin said.

But that might not be the biggest threat to her family’s health. Her septic tank overflows and contaminates her well. The bathroom plumbing backs up. Dark patches of mold grow on a closet ceiling.

“I just want water, new water for the kids,” she said.

Bill Britton of the Sea Islands Water Wellness Project said the living conditions are bad but not the worst he’s seen on Wadmalaw.

“It’s like third-world country stuff,” he said.

The Water Wellness Project is a new group raising funds to help struggling Wadmalaw residents such as Boykin.

“The people we talked to on Kiawah and Seabrook islands said they cannot believe they are living in an area where people don’t have water,” Britton said.

Support for the relief effort extends beyond the islands. An Ohio church mission group is working with Wadmalaw residents. Jamestown resident Don Taylor donated $5,200 so Boykin can get a new well. And he will pay for an electrician to see what it would cost to get her heat running, Britton said.

“It’s all about everybody connecting up with everybody,” he said.

The Water Wellness Project grew out of the year-old Sea Islands Hunger Awareness Foundation.

“Our plan is to do this one family at a time and start with the one that needs it the most,” said Shirley Salvo, foundation president.

Boykin, 66, will be the first to benefit from the Water Wellness Project, which aims to help dozens of islanders who need clean drinking water. In the meantime, her family drinks bottled water.

She sleeps in one bed with three granddaughters. Three grandsons sleep in other rooms. She tried using a space heater, but faulty electrical wiring caused a fire. Her utility bill has been about $300 a month, and she receives $1,444 monthly — her late husband’s retirement pay, Boykin said.

Britton said that more than 100 Wadmalaw residents could benefit from the Water Wellness Project.

“Some don’t have a well at all,” he said.

Nearly 200 islanders recently appealed to Charleston County Council for help. They want a water line to Wadmalaw because of the poor quality of well water.

In response, the county sent a letter to St. Johns Water Co. suggesting a meeting of public heath officials, environmental regulators and concerned islanders.

The county has crunched some numbers and estimated it would cost about $30 million for a water line to Wadmalaw.

St. Johns Water, the closest provider, has not had time to consider the request for a waterline, but board member Thomas Legare has said the proposal was financially unfeasible. Legare also said that he has heard from residents who are opposed to the idea because they fear it would lead to more development.

Britton said that wells, filtration systems and septic tanks could be installed for a fraction of the cost of a waterline.

The Hunger Awareness Foundation’s first Gullah celebration last May raised $62,000 to feed the hungry, Salvo said. She said she hopes the next Gullah celebration will raise $100,000, and about half of that could go to provide clean water.

Britton said work on Boykin’s new well will start in a few days. It will take about a week to finish the project, he said.

The Water Wellness Project so far has identified about 15 households for new well water. In the 2000 census, Wadmalaw had about 2,600 residents. At least 10 percent of them don’t have clean water, Britton said.

A lot of people in need have wells that were installed long ago, he said.

The group hopes to provide clean drinking water for about a dozen homes annually. It could help an estimated 200 households for $800,000, he said.

“Our realistic goal is to raise $50,000 which we think we can do at Kiawah and Seabrook,” Britton said.

County Council has authorized $225,000 in federal funds to assist qualifying households with an upgrade to their existing well and/or septic system, officials said.

There are about 100 households on a waiting list for the county assistance of which about 25 percent are on Wadmalaw Island. The households could benefit from the funding, but a full assessment and evaluation must be done first, said county spokeswoman Natalie Hauff.

Certain households may not be able to receive services if an on-site assessment shows that there would be little benefit because of the existing water table or soil conditions, she said.

Reach Prentiss Findlay at 843-937-5711.