HOLLYWOOD — This small town has violated an order from regulators stemming from a two-month-long sewage leak, but a state official says there won't be any repercussions — yet.
That's as long as the town, Dorchester County and Charleston Water System can come to a long-term agreement on what to do with the aging sewer system by the end of August.
"What we felt was the most judicious thing for us to do in this case, since we believe they are really close to whatever decision is going to be made. We've basically agreed to give them a bit more time to get to the end of their process," said Mike Marcus, the head of the Bureau of Water at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Hollywood, a patchwork of low-income neighborhoods and tony subdivisions in southern Charleston County, was placed under a consent order from the agency last year. A spill at the beginning of 2018 that proved difficult to pinpoint released as much as 10 million gallons of raw sewage into a creek feeding the Stono River.
The spill led the state to close nearby shellfish beds to harvesting, but the town of 5,000 has only had to pay about $900 in fines for that incident so far.
Hollywood argued that a hefty fine wouldn't help its situation, and indeed, the entire sewage system was ailing from low revenues and years of deferred maintenance, a Post and Courier investigation found. A refusal to raise sewer rates for more than a decade, a poorly designed system that only serviced half of the town, and a novel financing arrangement at the very beginning all added to the challenge.
Hollywood missed a July 1 deadline to finalize a long-term plan. The negotiations have been ongoing but were complicated somewhat in June as the town elected a new mayor, John Dunmyer III, ousting three-term incumbent Jackie Heyward.
While Heyward wanted to find another owner for the system for years, Dunmyer said he absolutely sees the sewerage as an asset to the town. He was also positive about the state of the system, because Dorchester County has been doing routine operation and maintenance for months.
The infrastructure "is not as bad as people think it is," Dunmyer said after a recent council meeting in which the town bought a $15,000 backup generator for a malfunctioning a pump station. "(Dorchester) came in and they found things, and everything's been working smooth."
Still, significant repairs are needed, said the town's engineer, Mickey Seabrook. CWS and the town have previously put the cost in the millions of dollars, and Dorchester has pledged to fund a engineering study to determine exactly what needs to be done.
How to fund that work, and who takes control after, has been the subject of three-way talks for months. Some residents and a Hollywood Town Council member worried that a plan put forward by CWS in January wasn't prioritizing Hollywood's needs.
Now, CWS Chief Executive Officer Kin Hill said the utility is offering to give Hollywood residents a discount on sewer fees to pay back the value of the system after the water system takes over. In all, the town system includes 26 pump stations, 38 miles of pipe and some real estate.
"The general concept of a three-way agreement has not changed," Hill said. "I would think we’re relatively close."
Hill also said that future sewer connections for a subdivision right across the county line in Dorchester, near Bulow Landing, will not connect to existing pipes under Poplar Grove. Instead, the pipes will run directly to a CWS station in Red Top.
Residents of Poplar Grove were staunchly opposed to adding any more sewer connections there, as they'd already seen sewage overflows in the area. However, those taps were the issue that originally brought Dorchester County to the negotiating table, because the county is legally obligated to provide sewerage for real estate developer Vic Mills.
Dorchester County Water and Sewer Director Larry Harper said in an email that discussions are ongoing but could not be reached by phone to comment further. Dunmyer declined to discuss the specifics of any potential deal, in part, because he will have to brief the council, which includes two new members.
Meanwhile, sewer mishaps have continued. In June, the electrical system of a pump in Poplar Grove failed, and lines started backing up. That made sewage bubble up through drains in Steve Davis' first-floor bathroom and mudroom, he said. His kitchen sink, meanwhile, was "gurgling."
"It's one thing when it backs up into the street. It's another thing when it backs up into your house," Davis said. "That’s when it gets real."
Davis has lived in the home for three years, and he has never seen a sewage backup on that level before, even though a different pump in the neighborhood has overflowed into the street about two or three times a year.
The town's emergency generator purchase will fix the pump closest to Davis, but he was still frustrated with the slow pace of progress.
"We just had a new election. Hopefully, that will help," Davis said. "They just kick the can down the road on this sewer issue forever."