SC - New court filing could put pause on coastal waterway development
MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCSC) - The South Carolina Environmental Law Project has filed a preliminary injunction against the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to put a pause on developments with septic tanks near coastal waterways.
The injunction seeks a hearing on a lawsuit filed a few months ago by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project on behalf of the Charleston Waterkeeper and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, two Lowcountry environmental organizations. They filed the suit against DHEC claiming the organization has not been monitoring hundreds of septic tanks and their impact on water quality.
If a judge grants this preliminary injunction, all proposed developments within 200 feet of coastal waterways will be put to a halt. That is, if they use a septic system for their water and sewage.
An example of this is two large residential subdivisions of more than 400 septic tanks coming next to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in Awendaw. Andrew Wunderley, executive director of Charleston Waterkeeper, says if that development moves forward, water quality and wildlife will suffer.
He says other waterways like James Island Creek and Shem Creek have had high levels of bacteria from septic tanks in the past and millions of dollars in state and federal funds had to be used to fix it. He says this injunction is crucial.
“We believe that’s necessary because of the irreparable harm that happens here,” Wunderley said. “If these permits are allowed to go forward and these developments are allowed to go forward and the septic tanks go in, it’s going to injure our coastal zone natural resources irreparably.”
If this injunction is granted, the original lawsuit would have a hearing. Wunderley says it could take years, but they’re hopeful that this can happen as soon as possible.
DHEC says it does not comment on pending litigation.
Environmental groups seek preliminary injunction on septic tank action
CHARLESTON, SC – Along the South Carolina coast, there are more and more instances of septic-dependent developments — meaning highly-clustered individual septic tanks — being used as a workaround to build suburban neighborhoods in rural and ecologically sensitive areas, posing threats to those communities and environments.
Small individual septic systems are a very reasonable option for many residents living in rural areas if systems are properly located and well-maintained. However, septic-dependent developments pose dangers to the environment and human health.
In a filing today, on behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project is seeking to prevent threats that are increased from individual septic system permits that are part of a Larger Common Plan of Development or within 200 feet of a Water of the State.
“This is degrading the character of rural communities and has negative impacts on water quality and wildlife,” said Robby Maynor, Communities & Transportation Program Director with the Coastal Conservation League. “We need more transparency and oversight to address this emerging pattern.”
In the eight coastal counties, DHEC does not review individual, residential septic tank permits for consistency with the state’s Coastal Management Program — regardless of whether they are part of a larger cluster of septic systems — despite applying these policies to almost every other type of state or federal permit in the coastal zone. This lack of review means the potential environmental risk to the surrounding area from failing septic tanks is not as closely considered as other potential impacts and does not need to be disclosed to the public.
The filing today comes after the groups filed a declaratory judgment action in November of 2022, asking the asking the Charleston County Circuit Court to rule as a matter of law that DHEC has a statutory obligation to review all septic tank applications in the coastal zone for coastal zone consistency. The groups are now seeking to prevent DHEC from issuing any more septic tank permits along the coast that are part of a Larger Common Plan of Development or within 200 feet of a Water of the State until this case is resolved. The goal of this request is to stop irreparable harm stemming from the issuing of individual septic system permits in large, dense developments.
“The Plaintiffs are particularly concerned that the lack of coastal review is resulting in large, septic-dependent developments being constructed without regard for the unique and vulnerable environmental circumstances we have along the coast,” said Leslie Lenhardt, attorney for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project. “We have provided affidavits to the Court in support of our motion that demonstrate the real injury that will occur to the State’s citizens if DHEC continues along this path.”
The November complaint also asked the court to order DHEC to publicly notice all septic system applications, making the public aware of proposed systems. This would promote greater transparency, public involvement and ensure that agency decisions with the potential to impact the environment are not being made behind closed doors.
The EPA estimates that as many as twenty percent of existing septic tanks are likely malfunctioning to some degree. According to DHEC, ten to thirty percent of septic systems fail to work properly in an average year. These malfunctioning septic systems harm our waterways, wildlife and surrounding habitats and adversely impact the public’s ability to safely enjoy the state’s waters for recreation, shellfish harvesting and more.
Until DHEC fully considers the all the environmental impacts of septic tanks, especially in large number and in ecologically delicate coastal areas, septic systems will continue to present risks to the quality of life for our communities and surrounding environment.
“DHEC cannot continue to neglect its responsibility to protect our coastal marshes, creeks, rivers and oyster beds,” said Andrew Wunderley, executive director at Charleston Waterkeeper. “Allowing dense clusters of septic tanks in low-lying coastal environments with little to no review will lead to degraded water and habitat quality. It’s much cheaper and easier to keep our coastal waterways clean than it is to clean them up after they are too polluted for swimming and oyster harvesting.”
Leslie Lenhardt, Senior Managing Attorney
South Carolina Environmental Law Project
firstname.lastname@example.org, (843) 527-0078
Andrew Wunderley, Executive Director
email@example.com, (843) 608-9287
Robby Maynor, Communities & Transportation Program Director
Coastal Conservation League
firstname.lastname@example.org, (843) 810-2544