A Conway sewage plant flooded Wednesday, releasing what was likely millions of gallons of raw wastewater into the Waccamaw River before the utility brought the plant back online.
Fred Richardson, CEO of the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority, said a treatment plant near Lake Busbee lost power even as pumps in the system kept effluent moving, meaning that sewage in the pipes was pumped back into a tributary of the Waccamaw without being cleaned.
"From the time (the plant) went out, we were right on it and we got it right back up in less than 24 hours," Richardson said.
The plant, located on New Road near Lake Busbee, is designed to handle 4 million gallons of sewage a day. Utility officials and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control have no idea how much was actually released without treatment. Richardson said the effluent was likely diluted, however, because floodwaters have entered several sewer pump stations around Conway.
Conway, the seat of Horry County, is about 15 miles from Myrtle Beach. Huge swaths of the town have been underwater for days as the massive amounts of rainfall from Hurricane Florence drain toward Winyah Bay, near Georgetown.
State and local officials have warned residents in flooded areas to stay out of the water, because of hazards from bacteria, industrial pollution and wildlife, but nobody knows precisely what's in the stew.
"Any and all flood waters, whether it be flood waters that have reached people's homes or the floodwaters that are in rivers and streams, we expect them to be contaminated with high bacterial counts already," said Tommy Crosby, a spokesman for DHEC.
The agency is not testing the water currently because it's not safe for personnel, he said, but it will start taking samples when waters recede. That work will determine when the Waccamaw and other waterways are safe again.
Rising waters can wreak havoc on sewer systems. During Hurricane Matthew, a flooded pump station in Socastee, another section of Horry County, malfunctioned and spewed raw sewage into the Rosewood Estates neighborhood.
The Conway plant, which was inundated by the Waccamaw, hasn't lost power since Hurricane Floyd unleashed a similar tsunami in 1999, Richardson said.
That flood resulted in a FEMA grant, Richardson said, to raise dikes around the facility. He said flooding after Floyd was what "everyone thought was the worst instance we'd ever see."
"Once we get through all this, we'll do a detailed (look at) what we could do better, a step-by-step analysis of everything," he added.
Sewage spills are just one environmental challenge posed by the storm, whose floodwaters also have breached sewer plants, coal ash dumps and hog and poultry lagoons across the Carolinas, sending massive slugs of contaminated water toward the coast.
In Cheraw, near the North Carolina border in Chesterfield County, the Environmental Protection Agency urged four families to leave their homes Wednesday after floodwaters left behind sediment laced with toxic chemicals.
EPA workers tested sediments deposited in five homes by the swollen Pee Dee River and found “detectable concentrations” in four of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), according to Trey Glenn, a regional EPA administrator. Evidence of PCBs, a banned, man-made toxin that has been identified by the EPA as a probable carcinogen, also was found in the crawl space of the fifth home.
The agency is offering those residents temporary accommodations to protect their health while it reviews cleanup options, Glenn said.
Cheraw is home to a federal Superfund site where work is ongoing to remove PCB-contaminated soil. The affected homes are located near a park that's part of the Superfund cleanup. The park saw significant flooding during the storm, according to the EPA.
EPA added the Burlington Industries Cheraw site to its National Priorities List in May. The presence of PCBs was discovered by state environmental officials and is attributed to former wastewater operations at the manufacturing plant, according to the EPA.