AWENDAW--Pumping a septic tank out on the ground just isn't legal, much less sanitary. So a passer-by was outraged to see a hose coming out of a tank and the outflow covering the grass at a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintenance yard in the natural environs of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

The passer-by contacted state health inspectors and then Watchdog by e-mail to see what would be done about it. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control investigated, and the inspector's report found it just about as bad as it had seemed. "Reddish yellow water" stood a foot or more deep from the tank discharge, through a swale some 10-20 yards long and into a ditch on the other end, the report states.

Not what you want to see in a public refuge to conserve wildlife and habitat. The swale and the ditch were less than a quarter mile from the Garrison boat landing into Bull's Bay, the heart of the refuge.

The 21-year-old septic system "basically backed up," the weekend of March 27, said Kevin Godsea, refuge manager. It apparently had been swamped by groundwater from the recent heavy rains. The crew called a septic tank service, which pumped out the tank. When the crew checked a few hours later, it had filled up again with what crew members described as clear water.

They went at it themselves this time, with a portable pump.

"I guess the guys were trying to figure out where the water was coming in," Godsea said. "They didn't think it was a problem because it had just been drained. In retrospect, they shouldn't have done that." The ditch was clogged, and the outflow didn't go any farther, he said. "I'm confident that, given the distance involved, it didn't contaminate the bay or the (nearby) wetlands."

Septic tanks are supposed to be pumped out by service companies and the discharge dumped at a sewer treatment plant. Fines can range as high $1,000 per day for a violation. But only problem cases are referred to DHEC enforcement officers in Columbia; the goal of local inspectors is to get compliance, said Thom Berry, DHEC media relations director.

Inspectors weigh people's cooperation in the decision to send a case to Columbia. The Fish and Wildlife Service violation didn't come to that, he said.

"When we explained to them what they needed to do, they did it, immediately. In fact, they went beyond what they needed to do," Berry said. "We treated them the same as we would you."

Health inspectors plan to follow up with the refuge staff and monitor how well the system is maintained, Berry said. The passerby's name was redacted from the DHEC report and he didn't want to comment for the story.

The refuge pumped out the mess and spread lime on the contaminated ground, Godsea said. Officials have applied for a grant to fix or replace the system. The employees have been talked to, but no discipline action was taken, he said.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.