A draft plan has been cobbled together to rescue Hollywood's beleaguered sewer system — the first clear road map to long-term stability after a two-month leak closed shellfish beds around the region at the beginning of the year.
The plan, however, includes two larger entities — Charleston Water System and Dorchester County — and will need to be greenlighted by CWS's commissioners and County Council before it can move forward.
The proposal, outlined for Hollywood's specially convened sewer committee on Dec. 5, would involve Dorchester County initially taking over maintenance responsibilities for the whole system and being paid by Hollywood for that work, with Hollywood footing the bill directly for any replacement parts, like new pumps or generators. At the same time, CWS would serve as a grant coordinator to find funding for capital expenses and also help organize an engineering study of the entire system.
After the system is in better working condition, which could take an estimated two years, CWS would reconsider taking a larger role by either taking ownership of the system or helping the town find a private firm to run the operations, according to a handout of the draft plan given to attendees of the meeting.
"I thought it was a good compromise, a good way to get our system back in professional hands," Hollywood Mayor Jackie Heyward said.
Kin Hill, the chief executive officer of CWS, declined to comment on any of the details of the plan before the utility's Dec. 18 board meeting.
Dorchester County Water and Sewer Director Larry Harper said in an email that CWS becoming the long-term operator would ensure the sustainability of sewer service in Hollywood.
"I am pleased at the proposal by CWS, which is a great example of intergovernmental cooperation to resolve wastewater issues in the region," Harper wrote.
Heyward has long argued that the small, largely rural town of Hollywood, in southern Charleston County, is not capable of running the complex wastewater infrastructure, which includes 26 pump stations and 38 miles of pipe.
It took almost two months earlier this year to find a leak in a force main that was seeping into a tributary of the Stono River. The spill totaled millions of gallons of untreated sewage.
A plethora of issues — including little money for repairs, an unusual initial funding arrangement and years of deferred maintenance — led the system to degrade to the point of last winter's spill, a Post and Courier investigation found.
But moving forward, the proposed plan hinges on balancing the complex interests of the town, the two wastewater utilities and some outspoken residents who have opposed an expansion of Hollywood's sewer system.
Dorchester County has become such a big player in the future of the town's wastewater system in part because they're contractually obligated to provide sewer service on land adjacent to Poplar Grove, a Hollywood subdivision at the corner of Rantowles Creek and Bulow Landing Road.
The draft plan includes an agreement directly between CWS and Dorchester County to provide the county with sewer capacity for an additional 32 sewer taps, which would then be connected to the existing sewer infrastructure in Poplar Grove. CWS treats all of Hollywood's sewer effluent, and thus controls how much treatment capacity is available to the town and nearby Meggett and Ravenel, which are connected to Hollywood's system.
Those taps are just the first phase of the development where Dorchester has to provide sewerage; the county's alternative is running an expensive and high-maintenance sewer main from its nearest infrastructure, at Ashley Ridge High School, about 9 miles away.
Some Poplar Grove residents have been resistant to a sewer expansion next door, saying they don't have confidence in the town to handle additional material running in the pipes near their homes.
But another component of the plan could assuage those fears. Dorchester is also on the hook for an additional 368 sewer taps in that area. CWS will explore bypassing Poplar Grove completely for that second phase, and pumping the material directly to its Red Top receiving station, about 2½ miles away, according to the handout detailing the plan.
Though the joint Dorchester-CWS plan is the first long-term proposal for the infrastructure, the initial stages would not be too different from the town's current situation. Hollywood was already paying Dorchester County at cost for sewer maintenance a few days a week when the town's only wastewater technician on staff recently resigned. Dorchester is now covering all day-to-day work, Heyward said.
Regardless, the proposed plan offers a reassuring path forward, Town Councilman Eddie Scott said.
"I think it’s a good idea because Hollywood’s not going to be able to sustain that sewer, it’s just too expensive," Scott said. "Right now we’re taking money out of the general fund (to pay for wastewater), and it's killing the town."