Charleston Co. judge hears arguments in septic tank case

The SC Environmental Law Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League against DHEC last November.
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 3:51 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 11, 2023 at 10:01 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - A Charleston County Circuit Court judge heard from a pair of environmental organizations who are asking to prevent the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control from issuing certain septic permits.

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project filed the lawsuit on behalf of Charleston Waterkeeper and the Coastal Conservation League against DHEC last November, but last Friday was the first time a judge heard arguments from both sides.

The lawsuit addresses multiple issues surrounding septic tanks, including asking the Charleston County Circuit Court to rule that DHEC has an obligation to review all septic tank applications in the coastal zone.

“The state of South Carolina needs to do a better job of permitting these tanks in the coastal zone, because of the unique nature of our coastal zone resources, and the fact that our soils here, drain very quickly, they flood frequently, and groundwater tables are very high,” Charleston Waterkeeper Executive Director Andrew Wunderley says.

“All of that means we need a separate set of rules, a separate set of analysis for septic tanks that are installed in the coastal zone,” he adds.

The South Carolina Environmental Law Project is also seeking to prevent DHEC from issuing any more septic tank permits along the coast that are part of a large common development or within 200 feet of water.

“What we’re seeing is that septic tanks more and more, they’re just failing along our coast, especially when they’re being placed in dense development,” Coastal Conservation League Land, Water and Wildlife Program Director Riley Egger says.

“There’s no real kind of oversight from the state government in order to make sure that they’re functioning properly, and that they’re not going to be failing and polluting our waterways,” she adds.

A lawyer on behalf of the environmental organizations, Leslie Lenhardt, said during the virtual hearing on Friday that between 10 to 30% of septic tanks are not operating correctly in the state.

“You have to have six inches of depth between the groundwater and the drain field; we have an affidavit that that’s not nearly enough in the coastal counties, it needs to be around 12,” Lenhardt says. “You have site specific and county specific issues that DHEC is not looking at today.”

In response, Brad Churdar, a lawyer for DHEC, says there are new standards that look at septic systems near coastal waterways, but the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit don’t think those standards are high enough.

“There are a number of other changes that are routinely implemented in the department as science improves and as the department is able to have more scientific evaluation of the potential and impact to the property that surrounds the septic permit location,” Churdar says.

“We know that once a septic tank is installed, you can’t uninstall it,” Wunderley adds. “It’s only a matter of time before it becomes an old, malfunctioning and leaking septic tank.”

Additional reasons behind the lawsuit come from high levels of bacteria found in Charleston waterways, with the goal of the lawsuit to stop irreparable harm coming from individual septic system permits in large developments.

“This is a public health issue pure and simple. Where we find septic tanks and watersheds, we find high levels of bacteria; that means is you could get really sick from eating shellfish, you could get sick from swimming, paddling or recreating or fishing,” Wunderley says.

The judge who heard the case on Friday says she will issue a ruling as soon as possible.

Upon request for comment, DHEC says they do not comment on pending litigation.