Where was the leak?
For weeks, this was the question in the town of Hollywood.
The community, a hodgepodge mix of rural neighborhoods and tony subdivisions in southern Charleston County, has had problems with its sewer system for years — wet wells overflowing, equipment breaking, leaks in mains. But for two months at the beginning of this year, the typical din of concerns rose to a full-on panic.
On Jan. 8, Charleston Water System, which treats the town's sewage, told Hollywood the meter reading at a West Ashley receiving station was abnormally low, less than half of average.
CWS provided biodegradable dye to inject into the sewer line so that town staff might spot it spilling out. Hollywood used as much dye in a month as CWS uses in all of Charleston's sewer lines a year. They still couldn't find a rupture.
Was the meter malfunctioning? CWS checked, rechecked and replaced the instrument, but its readings continued to plummet. By Feb. 6, after weeks of going back and forth with the town, the utility said it was certain: Somewhere in Hollywood's matrix of pipes and pump stations, raw sewage had to be escaping.
Two weeks later, the meter reading fell to zero.
It would be another six days, on Feb. 26, before town staff found the baseball-size hole that had been oozing sewage for almost two months. It was well-hidden, under a tidal creek that flowed directly into the Stono River, potentially contaminating all of the shellfish beds from Charleston Harbor south to the North Edisto River.
The spill caused the state's environmental regulator to close the oyster beds in the peak of harvesting season, as the small town's crisis ballooned into a problem that spread to the region's oystermen and food scene.
Hollywood reported to the S.C. Department of Environmental Control that, in all, 2.4 million gallons spilled. But its report only listed the spill as beginning on Feb. 19. A comparison of flow numbers from Jan. 8, when the town was first told of a potential issue, to the repair on Feb. 26, shows a much higher number: CWS received about 10.4 million gallons less than it would expect on average.
Today, the town of Hollywood, CWS and environmental groups agree: An agency with more resources and more staff needs to take over the crumbling sewer system. Each day that passes, the system is only getting older, and there's little standing in the way of another leak. In fact, the town has reported two smaller sewer leaks already this year.
Yet in the eight months since, no clear solution has been found. A Post and Courier investigation found a bevy of issues led to Hollywood's current sewer crisis and stalled its resolution. These include:
- A system that has broken down after years of deferred maintenance.
- A refusal by Town Council to raise sewer rates for the past decade, starving the town of money for repairs and maintenance.
- An unusual funding arrangement in which private individuals bought sewer capacity, which later backfired spectacularly on the town.
- A missed opportunity to remove several miles of pipe from ecologically sensitive land, which would have eliminated the section that began leaking in January.
- And hesitance by CWS to take over the system, because millions of dollars of work needs to be done to bring the system up to minimum operating standards.
In the intervening months, a new potential suitor has emerged. Dorchester County, which made a commitment years ago to provide sewer right across the county line from Hollywood, is exploring the idea of taking over all 38 miles of pipe and 26 pump stations.
But some worry that option would squeeze out longtime residents. Roughly half the town isn't even hooked up to the system yet. A few people paid tap fees decades ago and still haven't been connected; the town is now refunding their money, saying it's just not possible.
Building the system in the first place, back in the late-'80s and early '90s, was a regional effort aimed at fixing a public health crisis in low-lying Petersfield, where residents with privies were getting diseases more common in developing countries.
Saving it will likely require another regional effort, potentially on an even bigger scale.
Backroom deals led to liability
Though few people would claim it this way today, Hollywood's sewer system is a point of pride for Bill Dreyfoos.
Dreyfoos was the town's attorney from 1987 to 1999, during much of its construction. He, along with staff from the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, helped apply for the federal grants and loans that built it. Leaders around the region helped advocate for the infrastructure that eventually extended to Hollywood, Ravenel and Meggett.
"It's a mistake to think of it as being a local project by any of those communities," he said. "Every single government in the three-county region was a participant in what was going on there."
But unbeknownst to Dreyfoos, then-Mayor Lela Dickerson was finding funding in her own way. In 1987, Dickerson drew up contracts on her own with eight private investors who paid the town in exchange for sewer capacity. The contracts were just one page.
Some of the biggest capacity owners the system were Charles Hipp Jr. and his brother, Preston Hipp. Both brothers are now deceased, but Charles Hipp III said his family owned the land that later became Stono Ferry, selling some of it to a development company and keeping some land to develop themselves.
Sewer access is essential to development, and much of the Stono Ferry land couldn't support septic systems, said Om Hasija, vice president at American Mortgage and Investment Co. Hasija said his company was approached to buy into the sewer system by Charles Hipp Sr., who rallied together many of the investors.
Hasija's company has land near the Stono, but it still hasn't been able to use the sewer capacity it also bought. Its property is too far away from a sewer line.
Not all the investors were looking to build. Helen Bradham, who bought capacity with her husband, Randolph, owned family land south of S.C. Highway 165 that still hasn't been developed. In fact, part of it is now the Hallie Hill Animal Sanctuary. She said her family's motivation was simply to help Hollywood.
But over time, the Hipps' and Bradhams' relationship with the town soured. They eventually sued, and the town is now slowly paying them back for their remaining capacity, sending half of every tap fee back to the families.
All told, there's more than $400,000 left on the bill.
'It's pretty overwhelming'
When the first phase of the system was built, it extended only to Petersfield and Stono Ferry. Throughout the early '90s, more grant money helped expand into the town of Hollywood.
CWS was in charge of maintenance, though Hollywood owned the infrastructure. Drinking water was provided directly by the utility, another quirk that challenges Hollywood to this day, because many small towns pay for sewer with money they make on drinking water.
By all accounts, CWS maintained the system well.
But in 2003, its contract with the town expired. Hollywood leaders at the time thought they could do the work more cheaply, CWS CEO Kin Hill said. But the utility also wasn't eager to extend the contract because it stipulated that any expense over $300 had to be approved by Town Council. Sometimes, the council didn't pay up.
"That happened several times, and what was happening was our existing ratepayers were actually subsidizing those costs," Hill said. "We didn't pursue (getting the money back), but we stayed in the contract as long as the contract was active."
The town then cycled through a series of private companies as it contended with a growing number of sewer disasters. In part, the pipes were far too big for the amount of flow, allowing it to sit and create corrosive gasses that eat at metal and concrete.
Today, the flow is so slow that sewage from a toilet flushed in Meggett takes 20 days just to reach a central pump station in Hollywood. By contrast, the longest it would take a flush to reach Dorchester County's treatment plant is 24 hours.
By 2006, DHEC put Hollywood under a consent order for 11 spills in the previous two years, fining the town $24,000.
Things didn't improve. Marc Knapp, of Charleston Site Utilities, was what he called a "crisis manager" for the system from 2006-08, getting calls at all hours as sewage overflowed from the town's pump stations.
Eugene McCall, a now-retired engineer whose firm was called the Clearwater Group, was the last private operator to run the system.
"We did priority fixes. Sometimes we did them better than others," McCall said. "There was never enough money to do everything right, or completely. And I assume there still isn't."
Today, the town has one staff member to maintain and operate the system. David Boyert, who has held the job since 2014, said the work he's responsible for really requires at least four people. Hollywood is looking into hiring another part-time sewer technician.
"It is pretty overwhelming for one person to be on call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," Boyert said.
'Just not accurate'
To hear Mayor Jackie Heyward tell it, the sewer system has haunted her since she took office in 2007. While the system is cash-starved, council members haven't raised rates in 11 years because of the impact on the town's lower-income residents.
Her ideal solution is to have another entity take it over.
Yet CWS, which seems like a logical partner because it has experience with the system and is literally connected to it, doesn't agree with the town on much these days.
Heyward insists the town has asked CWS for a sewer takeover multiple times. CWS officials insist that's not correct, and they said the town definitely has not made such a request since last winter's spill.
“That's the first thing I said to them in (our meeting in) June, 'Would you like to take over the system?' and they laughed and said no," said Town Attorney Jon Austen. "They've been asked many, many times. That’s just not accurate.”
Hill, the CEO, countered:
"It may have come up in casual conversation, but we have not received a formal request in recent history to take over the town of Hollywood’s sewer system that our board could consider."
CWS officials said a takeover wouldn't be fair to their customers because the town still needs millions of dollars in repairs. Without help from grants, those customers would be on the hook.
While the town and CWS are at loggerheads about the future, they also disagree about the past — namely, whether Hollywood had the chance to eliminate 5½ miles of sewer main by tying into CWS's system at Bees Ferry Road instead of Stinson Drive.
That change would have protected miles of wetlands and streams, including the area that sprung a leak in January.
CWS says the town turned down that chance years ago. Several town officials, including the mayor, the attorney and its contracted sewer engineer, said Hollywood never refused such an offer.
Either way, the utility insists it's now too late. The infrastructure installed at Bees Ferry isn't big enough for the additional flow.
'Manna from Heaven?'
In the past few months, a new option has emerged.
Dorchester County is doing maintenance work for the town at cost, saving Hollywood money compared with a private contractor. The arrangement also allows Dorchester to get an inside look at the state of the system.
The county, it turns out, is legally obligated to provide sewer service to 32 homes directly across from Hollywood's Poplar Grove development. The developer of those homes has rights for sewerage to cover an additional 368, over the long term, but Dorchester Water and Sewer Director Larry Harper said the county is currently focused on getting Hollywood to consider the 32.
The alternative is spending millions to extend a sewer line from Ashley Ridge High School, 9 miles away.
Dorchester and the town have talked about taps for years, and some in Poplar Grove are dead set against it: They don't trust the town to handle the additional sewage in the pipes under their homes.
In the end, the easiest answer might be for Dorchester to take over the whole system. That possibility, Hill said, was "manna from heaven." But there's no guarantee that the county will like what it sees as it continues working in Hollywood.
State Rep. Robert Brown, D-Hollywood, isn't sure the arrangement is a good idea. Before putting the system in Dorchester's hands and granting taps to that county, Hollywood residents need to be hooked up, he said. Brown has asked DHEC to put a limit on new taps connected to Hollywood's system; the limit restrict the town to no more than 10 at a time.
“If Dorchester County takes over the sewer system, then our rates, our growth and everything is going to depend on the decisions that Dorchester County (makes)," Brown said. "That’s ludicrous.”
Ultimately, Hollywood only has 1,100 sewer taps left unused, because it has a limit on how much sewage CWS will treat. More than 500 of those taps remain in private hands, because some original sewer investors still own capacity.
The town owns about 600 taps directly — enough for the development in Dorchester County, but not enough for all of Hollywood's residents.
Some don't want sewer; their septic tanks work fine. Others can't afford to tap in, or aren't near a line.
At least one, Charles Linnen, said his family has waited for sewer service to reach his sister's land since 1998. This summer, the town refunded their tap fee. His sister has a trailer ready to go, waiting for sewer connection, so he's refused to cash the check.
So even as the system crumbles, its original goal — to provide sewer service to rural residents in and around Hollywood — remains an elusive one.
"Maybe in due time, with the right administration, we’ll probably get it to everybody," he said.