MOUNT PLEASANT — Todd Groh's yard used to be the hangout for the neighborhood kids. You can tell by the chalk drawings up and down the driveway.
His backyard, though, now looks like a tiny Superfund site.
A portable pumping station rests on a trailer where the truck ruts end. Extra steel supports are stacked for the coffer dam installed in Lake Cooper that now rings the property where his dock used to sit.
Behind a steel fence on the lake bank Friday afternoon roamed an SCE&G crew, a S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control inspector and a private contract engineer.
A crew in a jon boat swept the water for signs that the absorbent booms aren't holding in the spill.
On the bank in the middle of it all rests a modest electric transformer. After three months, the ground underneath the transformer still leaks so much oily fluid that Groh can jump on a nearby stump and watch it pool.
Worse still, Groh and other neighbors who live behind the East Cooper Plaza shopping center on U.S. Highway 17 say they still don't know exactly what is leaking or from where.
Groh was told fuel oil, he said. Now he's told it's mineral oil. The utility wasn't responsible; then the utility was.
Groh cradles Eden, his 1-year-old, and stares at the mess from behind his sunglasses, his mouth twisted a little in disgust.
"It's been three months of this. My family can't use our backyard," he said.
Transformers do hold some oil, to cool them. Asked how unusual it is that the ground around a neighborhood transformer would be leaking that much oily fluid, or whether it's unusual for a cleanup to take so long, an SCE&G spokesman said any leak would be more than expected.
"We do not expect leakage from the equipment on our system, and this is an unusual situation," spokesman Paul Fischer said. "It is important to remember that mineral oil is essential to the operation of the unit. The unit was still functioning when it was replaced."
Underground work is more involved, Fischer said. The location along the water also has complicated the effort.
"We understand that complex transformer replacement projects in residential areas can be frustrating for the homeowners and the neighbors on the street," he said.
"We appreciate our customers’ continued patience as we work to resolve this issue for the community and the surrounding areas we serve. SCE&G remains committed to the environment and the communities we serve, and will continue to follow all applicable laws and guidelines," he said.
A DHEC spokeswoman also didn't directly comment on the scale or the source of the pollution but did say it is SCE&G's responsibility.
"The department continues to monitor the situation as SCE&G investigates the source of the (oil) sheen and cleans up and properly disposes of all of the impacted material," said spokeswoman Cristi Moore.
In the big picture, the Lake Cooper leakage isn't a large issue. But the company already is reeling from problems such as public outrage over its mismanagement of the failed V.C. Summers nuclear plant project and rate increases that were to pay for it. The lake neighbors have lost trust.
"This is crazy," Groh said.
It started on a snowy day in January as the Grohs celebrated Eden's first birthday. They smelled petroleum and noticed the fluid pooling near the transformer. They called SCE&G. Within an hour, company and DHEC trucks lined the street. A U.S. Coast Guard hazards assessment crew boated to Shem Creek where overflow from the lake drains.
That night, a man who knocked on doors told the neighbors power would be cut off in 20 minutes and the company would pay for hotel rooms. It was 30 degrees outside.
Elliott Locklear, who lives three doors down from Groh, was nursing her newborn. A hotel wasn't going to do, she said. She ended up staying with a relative.
The company pulled the transformer, installed a temporary one, and the cleanup began — three months ago.
"I understand accidents happen. But what is taking so long to clean it up? And nobody is communicating anything," Locklear said.
The water inside the coffer dam is now being drained. When that's done, SCE&G plans to pull the temporary transformer and dig out the lake bottom inside the dam as well as the bank and nearby grounds. Crews then hope to remove whatever is still seeping.
For at least one more night the neighbors will not have power.
"After all that, they'll start to put things back together for me, replace the dock," Groh said. That's what the claims adjuster told him.
"We've had a lot of promises. I don't know that's enough. We can't use our backyard. People (working) have been in it every morning. I just want it cleaned up."
The Coast Guard continues to monitor Shem Creek and no noticeable trace of the fluid has been found, said Ensign Phillip Vanderweit.