Wadmalaw well water worries spur appeal to County Council

“This is my second pan,” said Monica Smith, showing the deposits from well water left in the pan she puts in the oven when she’s cooking to help humidify her Wadmalaw home in the winter.

Monica Smith doesn’t drink the well water at her Wadmalaw Island home because she worries about its health effects.

There are “little black things” in the water, which has a sulfurous smell.

“We all have this water problem,” she said. “There’s loads of us.”

Smith and more than 100 island residents signed a petition presented to Charleston County Council asking for help.

“The water has been bad on Wadmalaw for years,” said the Rev. William Jones of St. James Bethel AME Church.

The church’s well water is no exception, he said.

“County Council is the closest government that we have to help us out,” he said.

St. Johns Water Co., which provides residential water service for Johns Island and sells water to utilities on Kiawah and Seabrook islands, has advised the county that water service for Wadmalaw Island would be too expensive. That’s partly because of the need to purchase right of way, lay pipe and extend infrastructure.

In a Jan. 27 letter to St. Johns Water, the county says it wants to facilitate a meeting of residents and local, state and federal officials to investigate the feasibility of public water on Wadmalaw and to look at other options for providing safe drinking water. The letter asks if St. Johns Water would be willing to participate in the process. The St. Johns Water board will not be able to review the request until its next meeting in late February, a spokesman said.

County engineers came up with an unofficial estimate that providing “city water” to Wadmalaw would cost more than $30 million. The county does not have a water system, so its expertise in the area is limited, said spokesman Shawn Smetana.

Thomas Legare, St. Johns Water board vice president, said he has heard from many Wadmalaw residents who are against city water for the island because of worries that it would open a door to commercial growth.

And the potential cost of Wadmalaw water also makes it a difficult proposition. Because St. Johns Water is a private nonprofit, it could not require island residents to tap into the system, he said.

“I don’t know who is going to pay for it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Janice Chisolm wonders if her well water made her 7-year-old daughter sick with shigellosis, a stomach bug caused by infection with the shigella bacteria. Shigellosis usually lasts five to seven days, and there are about 500,000 cases annually. Its symptoms include diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.

Chisolm and her daughter drink bottled water. The illness could have been spread by another child exposed to shigella from drinking well water or eating produce or vegetables washed in it, she said.

Providing treated water service is one way to reduce the risk of shigellosis, the CDC says.

Chisolm said she knows of no other cases of shigellosis among island children. Her daughter was sick for about a week. A state health department test of her well water for the E. coli bacteria that can cause stomach sickness was negative. Chisolm said her well water was not tested for the shigella bacteria.

Councilwoman Anna Johnson, whose district includes Wadmalaw, said the county should help with Wadmalaw well water testing because the cause of the child’s nine-day sickness has not been identified.

“That really concerns me. We as a county need to look into that,” she said.

The state Department of Health and Environmental Control regulates public water systems but not private wells. DHEC provides testing of private well water for fees ranging from $20 per sample for fecal coliform bacteria to $50 per sample for metals and minerals.

Annually, DHEC analyzes some 6,000 private well samples for bacteria and 2,000 samples for minerals and metals, its website says.

Islander Jean Gadsden has a washing machine but goes to a laundromat because her well water turns white fabrics the color of clay.

“I don’t have the egg smell. I just have that clay-red dirt that stains everything,” she said.

Gadsden, 70, said she fills gallon jugs with tap water when visiting friends and family.

Her household includes four grandchildren and a brother who drink the water she brings home. Her well water has rusted her washing machine, refrigerator and mop bucket. The bathtub is rust-colored, she said.

Flooding on Wadmalaw contributes to the water quality problem, she said. Persistent poor drainage on the island creates contaminated standing water that seeps into wells, Jones said.

“I don’t drink the water because I know it’s bad,” he said.