"There are folks who don't think about where their wastewater goes," says Ron Mitchum, executive director of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments (COG). "They just flush the toilet, take a shower, and pay the bill."
But where our wastewater goes is directly related to where we build and grow as a city. Next Tuesday, the COG's Special Wastewater Issues Committee is expected to make a recommendation about whether or not to condone private wastewater treatment plants, often called "package plants," a move that could have significant implications on growth and development in the Lowcountry's rural areas.
Privatized sewage treatment is not a new concept. According to Mitchum, somewhere between 70 and 85 small-scale "package plant" facilities exist already in the tri-county area. Many of the package plants, mostly built in the 1960s, have since failed, polluting waterways and requiring local governments to purchase and maintain them or shut them down and reroute their users to the municipal facility.
Before massive city-wide treatment facilities like Charleston's Plum Island plant were built, septic tanks were the norm. However, septic tanks require maintenance and take up space, making them less than ideal for a developer building hundreds of homes.
The legality of private treatment plants arose last year when the town of Awendaw proposed a $28 million facility that would be owned and operated by a private contractor. The company would provide the lines to residents and then bill those who chose to tap into it. That project, which would discharge into Jeremy Creek (and in turn the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge), will likely be voted on by the COG sometime this spring.
When the project first came to the COG last fall, concerns about the impact of decentralizing wastewater treatment away from the government spawned the creation of the Special Wastewater Issues Committee, which meets for the third time on Tuesday. It's expected that they'll make a recommendation at that meeting as to whether or not private facilities should be allowed, and if so, under what conditions.
Condoning private wastewater treatment would not only ease approval of the Awendaw plant, but allow the construction of housing developments in places far from existing sewer lines and infrastructure. Both individual systems and miniature versions of municipal facilities have been designed that would allow for any number of homes to self-treat their wastewater. Some use a percolating filter system that drips into the ground, others spray treated water onto fields, and some use a treatment pool and output pipe from the neighborhood to a local waterway.
"The question is, 'What's the right way to do this?'" says COG Director Mitchum.
Any system that treats raw sewage and then releases it back into nature is eventually going to require maintenance. One concern is that when a developer hands over the system to the homeowners, the builder is no longer responsible for its upkeep. By the time any problems arise, the homes may have a second or third generation of owners who will likely turn to the local government for help.
Real estate broker Winston White grew up in Awendaw and supports the construction of the new plant. His family owns 334 acres that he's attempted to sell to out-of-state developers twice, but claims the interference of an environmental advocacy group, the Coastal Conservation League, has stymied both deals, costing him $33 million in contracts. He argues that the poorer population of Awendaw, who either drink well water or haul gallon jugs from a reverse osmosis filtering station, is evidence that the town needs modern amenities.
"It's the 21st century, and we have people using unfiltered groundwater to cook and bathe with," says White. "Would a treatment plant encourage development? Absolutely. But is that going to be a bad thing?"
White points out that over 90 percent of the land between Georgetown and Mt. Pleasant is either part of a national forest or a wetland. It can't be developed.
"I don't want stoplights in Awendaw or any kind of massive development, but I want my parents to be able to go the store without driving to Mt. Pleasant," says White. "This comes down to a landowner's rights — If you want to sell your car, I don't care who buys it, but don't interfere with someone's parents."
Conservation League Project Manager Lisa Jones-Turansky says that facilitating large developments is not the solution for rural people facing poor access to sewer and clean water. "We can fix the failing septics at a fraction of the cost of building a new plant," she says. "They're using poor people as justification to push something that will create a huge new potential for exploiting growth in areas previously not reached by sewer lines."
Turansky estimates that the $28 million plant in Awendaw, a town where most of the 1,200 residents currently utilize septic tanks, would require the construction of at least 6,000 new homes to make its money back. She attributes the push for private systems to landowners who purchased large tracts and are now paying high interest on the properties, requiring high density developments in order to make a profit.
"Lines facilitate development, and in a case of private money building it, they're going to expect a return," says Turansky. "These guys have finally figured out that if they can cram in their own sewer plant, they can make a killing on their investment. This is a way to get around rural zoning and the urban growth boundary."
Ecologically sensitive hammock islands and peripheral areas could also become attractive to developers if self-contained sewage treatment becomes a viable option. Charleston County Planning Director Dan Pennick says that growth will need to be carefully controlled if package plants get the okay. "If you can pop one of these things up any place, then people will request changes in land use policy to accommodate that, which could end up in increased sprawl and additional infrastructure costs," he says. "To allow them to go haphazard all over the county would create a potential land use nightmare."
In cases where a new urbanist development can afford to take over operational costs from the private contractor who builds it, however, Pennick feels that package plants could be a benefit. He points out that the Lowcountry's soil would require some artificial filtering where the drip-into-the-ground method is used, and he stresses that with any type of system, determining who is ultimately responsible when something goes wrong is a necessary precursor to construction.
If the Special Wastewater Issues Committee recommends that package plants be pursued, the full COG board will determine what set of regulations will govern their construction and operation. COG Director Mitchum says he knows of several projects on Johns Island and Charleston's peripheral areas like Hollywood, Meggett, and Awendaw where developers are waiting on the board's decision to submit their proposals.
"If you say, 'Yes,' to one, the expectation is that you'll say, 'Yes,' to the next," says Mitchum. "The concern is that these systems would allow development in places where conditions are marginal at best."
The Special Wastewater Issues Committee meets Tues., March 18 at 10 a.m. at the COG office at 1362 McMillan Ave. in North Charleston. Public comments will be taken at the meeting.