Almost two years after a small town's sewer system spilled 10 million gallons of raw sewage into the Stono River, negotiations to aid the system have ground to a halt.
The rural town of Hollywood struggled for years to maintain 26 pump stations and 38 miles of sewer lines. The struggle contributed to a January 2018 spill, after which the state briefly halted shellfish harvesting in half the region's tidal waterways.
Now, months of three-way negotiations between Hollywood, Charleston Water System and Dorchester County have ended without a firm plan to help the town of 5,000 shore up its system. The Water System told the town in a Dec. 4 letter it was pulling out of talks.
Kin Hill, the Water System's chief executive, said on Tuesday the utility would offer technical assistance in the future but would not help with operation or maintenance.
Hollywood Mayor John Dunmyer III, who won office in July, said the town had already spent more than $400,000 fixing the system and is considering other financial options to improve the sewers.
The situation puts the safety of the region's waterways back at square one, said Andrew Wunderley, of water quality watchdog Charleston Waterkeeper.
"The status quo is a ticking time bomb, and it’s just a matter of time before there’s a spill again," Wunderley said.
Charleston's water utility pulled out of the deal because it had asked the town for more financial details before staff brought the agreement to its board, CWS said in its letter. The utility warned Hollywood last month that it would retreat if it did not get more information about debt owed to the federal government and who had been promised sewer taps.
"We wish them well," Hill said. "We’re here to assist them, if they need us."
Dean Porter, the town's attorney, told The Post and Courier that Hollywood had given CWS all the information it had.
It's possible the town has lost some documents, a not-uncommon occurrence. Small towns have to maintain decades of records through hurricanes, administration changes and other disruptions.
But on Tuesday, Dunmyer insisted that CWS had all the documentation it needed. He did not offer an explanation for why the utility said otherwise.
"They have that information," he said.
The third party in the deal, Dorchester County, may still benefit from the negotiations. It's still being paid on a month-to-month contract to maintain Hollywood's sewer lines. It's also possible that CWS will provide more than 400 sewer taps to Dorchester County.
Dorchester promised a developer in 2005 that it would provide the sewerage on a parcel just across the county line from Hollywood. That was part of the county's motivations for entering negotiations in the first place.
Hill said he thinks that part of the arrangement still makes sense, but the CWS board would need to approve it.
What remains unclear is the future role of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. DHEC had put Hollywood under a consent order for its 2018 spill and ordered it to come up with a plan, but so far declined to levy any actual fines above roughly $900.
Hollywood officials said the town is still following that order because it signed the draft agreement, even though CWS and Dorchester did not. DHEC disagreed.
Mike Marcus, chief of the agency's Bureau of Water, said in a statement that regulators would continue to work to bring Hollywood's system up to state and federal standards. Wunderley said state officials need to apply more pressure to the town to encourage a deal.
"DHEC has shown an inability to be the leverage to make this deal happen," Wunderley said, adding that the agency "needs to threaten a strong enforcement action that holds the town accountable."
Environmental advocates saw a CWS takeover as the best option because the utility has more resources and expertise. Hollywood is also physically connected to it.
The town doesn't treat any of its own sewage. It pipes all of it to CWS, and pays the utility for treatment.
But, in the past, some in the town have opposed a takeover. Even while the most recent negotiations were still going on, Hollywood was soliciting private contractors to serve as sewer operators for the town.
Dunmyer said that the solicitation was a "plan B." If the deal had come through as drafted, CWS would have eventually taken control and ownership of the sewer system.
Dunmyer admitted that the town's past management, and lack of maintenance, led to the current problems.
"It was self-inflicted," he said.
But he insisted that future management would improve.
"We didn't do a good job with our (operation and maintenance) program, and that is not going to happen again," he said. "I am personally responsible."