Negotiations are moving forward on a plan to help the small town of Hollywood's beleaguered sewer system, but some tensions are already appearing.
The plan, a complex three-way deal that would have Dorchester County do most of the work on the system for the next two years and Charleston Water System take it over once it's brought up to standards, was presented to Hollywood's Town Council on Monday night.
It was recommended by the town's sewer committee, a group of residents and officials that has studied how to improve the system after a leak dumped millions of gallons of effluent into a tributary of the Stono River last year. An investigation by The Post and Courier found that the leak was precipitated by years of neglect and financial challenges.
But some on the council took issue with parts of the proposal, notably a portion that would pave the way for 32 new sewer taps in Dorchester that would connect to Hollywood's existing infrastructure in the Poplar Grove development. That component was the first step in the plan, as outlined in a Jan. 4 letter by Charleston Water System CEO Kin Hill.
"We can see where the main emphasis is and who’s benefiting. It’s not the town of Hollywood. We’re on the bottom of the list here," Councilman Herbert Townsend said Monday night.
Council ultimately accepted the plan in a 4-3 vote, but the proposal will serve as a starting point for negotiations rather than a binding plan of action. Council members also expressed concerns about future hikes in sewer fees. While keeping Hollywood rates flat for a decade has starved the system of money, CWS's rate structure could more than double the current fees.
Any final agreements or contracts will again have to be approved by Town Council.
Dorchester County's ability to secure sewer service is a linchpin to its participation, county Water and Sewer Director Larry Harper said. Dorchester is legally obligated to ultimately provide 400 taps to the developer of a large swath of land north of Poplar Grove, and the first 32 homes are working through the county's permitting process now, Harper said.
"The way this agreement was constructed, everyone has some skin in the game," Harper said.
The county has long been viewed with suspicion by some in Hollywood because of that legal commitment, made in 2005 to a company controlled by developer Vic Mills. At the same time, Dorchester has been doing sewer maintenance work at cost for the town of Hollywood, a significant discount from the private firms the town was previously using.
In the proposed plan, they have also offered to fund a full engineering study of the sewer system. Such a study would be a necessary first step to apply for any grant funding for major repairs, which could range into the millions of dollars.
Charleston Water System CEO Kin Hill lays out a possible plan of action in a Jan. 4, 2019 letter to the town of Hollywood.
Hollywood hasn't always run its sewer system. From its inception in the 1980s until 2003, all operation and maintenance was done by CWS. Hill previously told The Post and Courier that one of the reasons that agreement wasn't renewed was that on some occasions the town did not pay the utility back for some of its repair work.
But Townsend said that account wasn't accurate. He argued the town should get the system back into working condition by itself and then decide how to deal with ownership.
Raising the necessary revenue is a tall order, however, for a town of about 5,000 with many residents living in poverty.
While the town decides how — and if — it wants to deal with Dorchester and CWS, it still faces a consent order from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control for the spill last year. While the agreement has only forced the town to pay about $900 so far, Hollywood may be subject to more fines or other enforcement action if they aren't able to comply with the order.
At the same time, sewer mishaps haven't stopped.
Hollywood resident Andrea Williams has been experiencing sewer backups at her home on Highway 162 for the past two years. She said there's typically a sewage spill on her property about once a month, but it occurs more often during the rainy season.
At first, raw effluent was spewing directly into her house, but she eventually took the cap off of a pipe connection in her front yard to let the overflow release there. It's still getting under her home, which is raised on bricks, and she worries about the livestock she keeps in her back yard: seven goats, six ducks and 10 chickens.
Attempts to resolve the issue with the town — by cleaning the surrounding pipes and working on a nearby pump station — haven't worked to date.
"Their plan's going to take years," she said. "I can't go through this for another year."