Town at center of SC water contamination investigation looking t - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina |

Town at center of SC water contamination investigation looking to open contaminated wells

Posted: Updated:
This is McBee's Well #1, the main component of the town's system. SCDHEC records: contaminated in 2009, shut down. This is McBee's Well #1, the main component of the town's system. SCDHEC records: contaminated in 2009, shut down.
McBee mayor Campolong wouldn't answer questions of town's filtering plans. He's aware of contamination case there. McBee mayor Campolong wouldn't answer questions of town's filtering plans. He's aware of contamination case there.
McBee's water line work still visible at Well #2 McBee's water line work still visible at Well #2
MCBEE, SC (WIS) -

Last year, a WIS investigation uncovered a massive water contamination case in the Chesterfield County town of McBee. In 2005, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control investigators started seeing high levels of three chemicals: Dibromochloropropane (DBCP), Ethylene Dibromide (EDB) andtrichloroethylene.

The lawsuit claims McLeod Farms was responsible for the chemicals DBCP and EDB. Those chemicals were found in pesticides the Environmental Protection Agency banned in 1979 after researchers connected sterility and cancer to the chemicals. The chemical TCE is an industrial solvent and ARWS accused Mar Mac Wire of introducing into the water supply, but the lawsuit did not detail any evidence of the allegations.

In September 2012, ARWS filed a $450 million lawsuit against McLeod Farms and Mar Mac Wire, accusing the two of being the source of the chemical contamination. In August, circuit court judge Michael Baxley granted a dismissal order for Mar Mac Wire, saying that ARWS failed to plead specific allegations linking" any Mar Mac entity to any of the contamination. Alligator Water's 2012 lawsuit claimed Mar Mac's businesses contributed to the trichloroethylene that DHEC started seeing in the water utility's water quality reports. Baxley found that Alligator Water did not show any evidence or show any specific facts to prove Mar Mac shared any responsibility for the contamination.

Baxley's August order gave Alligator Rural Water 60 days to show evidence or to amend its original complaint against Mar Mac, but as the Oct. 21 deadline passed, court records show no evidence was ever presented to the court. On Oct. 21, Mar Mac's request to be dismissed from the 2012 lawsuit was final.

 

Alligator Rural Water officials said Mar Mac denied using trichloroethylene during the legal proceedings and decided not to pursue an amended complaint against the company before the Oct. 21 deadline as the utility had no evidence to present.

Through 2002 and 2005, DHEC started seeing the chemicals showing up in the public and private water supplies in and around McBee. Following a May 2009 meeting between Alligator Rural Water System (ARWS), the public water utility in McBee, and DHEC, ARWS decided to spend $15 million on a filtering system to clean the chemicals out of its water system. As of July 2012, DHEC could not find any chemical contamination in the ARWS system.

In 2008, DHEC performed 68 water quality tests on private wells around the outskirts of McBee's town limits. DHEC records show 37 wells were either contaminated or showed signs of EDB and DBCP. The state's environmental agency suggested well owners install filters on their water wells. DHEC has not been back to McBee to figure out how the contamination got into the aquifer or to track down those responsible.

Chesterfield County civil court records show all the original defendants; besides Mar Mac Wire, continue to be named in the lawsuit. Judge Baxley has taken the case under advisement and has not scheduled any hearings as of this report.  

MCBEE'S PLANS TO OPEN CONTAMINATED WELLS

The town of McBee currently purchases water from the Alligator Rural Water System, then sells that water to people who live inside the town limits. McBee used to operate its own water system until the late 90s, then decided to contract with ARWS to furnish the town water. McBee does make a profit from the water it sells to its citizens from ARWS.

In an August 2013 trip to McBee, we noticed an industrial generator parked outside McBee's Well #2, the second of two wells McBee used to operate. The generator was wired up to a dilapidated concrete shed that contains the electric motor portion of Well #2. There was some work being done to the building and to the area that surrounds it. We documented what we saw that day.

Signs that McBee's spent a considerable amount of tax dollars aren't hard to see. The generator costs the town $947—plus tax—each week. We confirmed that by getting a quote for the same generator from the rental company from where the town rented this one.

Weeks later, we got a tip that McBee town officials may be working to reopen its two wells and leave the ARSW, a water utility that's showed no contamination since installing $15 million in filters to clean its system.

We submitted a Freedom of Information Act request with DHEC on August 30, asking for any water permits and applications McBee may have filed with DHEC. After missing the 15-day deadline for a response, DHEC finally made some of the records available on Sept. 26. The agency didn't have all McBee's records available until Oct. 2.

DHEC records show McBee won approval for construction and renovations at its Well #2 on March 26, 2013. The plans would allow McBee to build additional buildings at the site and to upgrade the town's well. The March permit was the only permit granted to McBee in 2013, according to DHEC's records.

The file does not show whether DHEC would require McBee to install filtering systems on its wells to filter contaminants that plague the aquifer from which the town plans to pump water and sell to its citizens.

It's a plan town council has worked on for months: spending tax dollars, performing construction, paying for DHEC permits, paying engineers to draft construction plans, and to pay Oliver Environmental Services to work on the town's water systems.

McBee's Well #2 was shut down years ago by Alligator Rural Water System manager, Glenn Odom, after Odom said EDB and DBCP started showing up in DHEC water quality tests at the site. That well sits only yards away from ARWS' Well #6, a well the public water utility shut down after finding chemical contamination. McBee is working to upgrade Well #2, but has not made any of the plans for this site available to the public. We found out about McBee's plans for the well after filing a Freedom of Information Act request with DHEC in August.

"In 2009, where the limit is 5, it was showing almost 3 and then where the limit is 5, it was 3.3, so it was moving up," Odom explained as he held DHEC's last water quality inspection of McBee's Well #1. After watching the well's contamination levels climb over two quarters, Odom said he and DHEC agreed the best option was to shut the McBee well down.

Odom said McBee's Well #1 was becoming a "public safety threat.

"It took two times for you all to see that the amount of contamination had increased each time and the call was made to shut this down?" Barr asked. "That's correct. In concurrence with DHEC. And I talked with enforcement and they were like me, they were seeing the levels go up," Odom said, "Why take a chance feeding contaminated water? We have an elementary school and a high school here in town and a lot of industry. We don't want to supply any bad water to anybody."

The town's Well #2 is more than 60 years old, according to Odom. Decades of experience in dealing with public water systems, Odom said, helped him make the call to pull the plug on McBee's wells. Barr: "Did you feel safe keeping McBee's Well #2 in the Alligator system at that point?" Odom: "No, we didn't."

SECRET PLAN TO REOPEN MCBEE WELLS

Part of this WIS investigation was to determine whether McBee officials held any public hearings or public votes before spending tax dollars to reopen the town's contaminated wells. A search of the last three years of McBee council minutes don't show one mention of the McBee water project or any votes to spend the tax dollars needed to fund the project.

We found that out after visiting town hall on Oct. 15, when we asked the town's clerk for all council minutes taken this year. After about five minutes, the clerk handed us certified copies of all 2013 minutes. There was no mention of the March 2013 DHEC permit or any votes taken on McBee's water plan in any of the minutes. The town's own clerk couldn't find anything either. "Was there any vote in public concerning the town applying for DHEC permits; concerning any part of the water system here?" Barr asked. "I'm looking, I don't really see anything right now," the clerk said.

Turns out, we weren't the only ones trying to find out what McBee's leaders were up to.

"I'd like to just know what's being paid out," McBee voter Bobby Blackwell told WIS. Blackwell is also chairman of the ARWS board. Blackwell also served on McBee Town Council for more than 20 years.

Blackwell did one of the only things a citizen can do when trying to figure out what government is up to; he filed a formal request under the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.

Blackwell read the opening paragraph of his FOIA request, "To whom it may concern, via the Freedom of Information Act, I hereby request the following data. I have enclosed a check for $100." The check was to cover any research and copying fees the town may have charged in order to turn the records over. Blackwell said the town cashed his check and the $100 was taken out of his account within days of mailing it.

Blackwell wanted to see the following public information related to McBee and its water project:

-McBee council minutes for the last three years

-Records of all bid requests and bids submitted related to the town's water system

-Copy of the contract between the town and Oliver Environmental Services and Bryan Sexton

-Records related to any other contracts related to McBee's water system

-Payment records related to any law firm or consultants hired to deal with McBee's water plan

-Payment records related to any contractor or employee dealing with the town's water plan

Blackwell sent the FOIA request to the town on August 12. When we spoke with him on Oct. 15, neither the town nor its attorney, Martin Driggers, had responded. The response required under the law was then 38 days late. "What have you gotten back from the town of McBee?" Barr asked Blackwell. "Not nothing. I filed it on August 12 and I got nothing back," Blackwell said.

"Do you believe the town, by virtue of not responding and not providing any of the records, may not want you to see what they have?" Barr asked. "That's probably the whole reason behind it," Blackwell responded.

At 11:11 a.m. on Oct. 15th, we called the Hartsville offices of Sweeny, Wingate and Barrow to ask McBee's hired attorney, Martin Driggers about the delay in responding to the FOIA. Driggers did not answer and we left a message on his office line. The next day at 8:59 a.m., Driggers returned our call and agreed to explain the delay during a McBee council meeting later that night.

Driggers said he mailed "the records" to Blackwell on Oct. 15th, the same day we called and left Driggers a message asking about the delay. Driggers took full blame for the town not responding and providing the public records to Blackwell, "I think the town got them to me in a timely fashion, so really the slowness was on my part." Driggers did not have an exact date he claims the town provided the requested records to his office.

Driggers claimed the delay came because the FOIA request "covered a lot of stuff," and was not an intentional move to keep from making the records public.

As for the timing of Driggers' mailing the FOIA records the day WIS called to inquire about the deal, the Hartsville attorney said it was just a coincidence, "Had the phone call not been made; no attempt by the town to not disclose this information?" Barr asked. "No, no, whatsoever. Like I said, it was just a matter of reviewing the documents and getting those to him."

Driggers could not tell us what time his office mailed Blackwell the records, but said it was "whatever time the mail ran that afternoon."

Blackwell received a package from Driggers' firm on Oct. 17th. The only records in the package was three years of council minutes and a letter from Driggers, denying Blackwell access to the rest of his request. Driggers claimed the rest fell under the attorney client provision of the SC Freedom of Information Act, despite the fact the law expressly requires the information Blackwell requested to be made public.

Blackwell said he has not ruled out suing Driggers and the town for access to the records to see who's been paid and how much McBee's spent on the water project.

NO ANSWERS FROM MCBEE LEADERS

In a town of 860, there's a strong likelihood that a plan to reopen two contaminated wells would have traveled quickly. But, seven months after winning approval from DHEC to rehabilitate one of its contaminated wells, no one we spoke with had knowledge of the plan.

"Are you all aware the town is spending money to reopen two wells in town?" Barr asked a group of voters gathered at an Oct. 17th McBee council meeting. "Yes," the group replied in unison. "How did you know?" Barr asked the group. "Rumor," the group shouted. "Do you know how much the town's spent?" Barr asked, "No, no idea," one voter shouted.

The first chance we got to question McBee's mayor about plans to reopen two contaminated wells there was during a trip to McBee on Oct. 16th. While we were shooting video outside the secured area of McBee's Well #1, Mayor John Campolong drove up to find out what we were doing.

"Have you applied with DHEC to put your own water system back online?" Barr asked the mayor, "Why are you asking?" Campolong asked. "Because I'm working on a story with WIS." Barr replied. "For what? For who?" Campolong asked.    

Campolong moved to McBee from Chicago decades ago and runs a shirt factory in town. The businessman would not provide any information to us concerning his town's plans for its two wells that showed contamination levels before DHEC and Alligator Rural Water System shut them down. Campolong accused us of running after "bad facts" he claimed that came from Alligator Rural Water System.

"Have you all taken a public vote concerning this water system? It's just one question," Barr said. "Have you notified the town you were photographing this thing?" Campolong asked, referring to the town's well and ignoring our questions. "Sir, it's just a simple question: have you all taken a public vote concerning the town getting back its water system?" Barr asked. "Is it necessary?" Campolong interrupted. "And, do you know how much the town's spent?" Barr asked. "Is it necessary?" Campolong asked again, "Is what necessary, sir?" Barr asked, "That we take a town vote?" Campolong asked. "I'm asking you, you're the mayor." Barr said. "I'm asking you, why are you asking me that question?" Mayor Campolong asked.

Campolong told WIS the town wouldn't do anything to harm the people who drink town water, but wouldn't answer multiple questions regarding the town's plans to filter the water it plans to pump through its two existing wells.

The mayor wasn't the only elected McBee official to not provide any answers regarding the town's water plan. "Have you all done this in public; taken the votes in public?" Barr asked town councilman Kemp McLeod. "Sir?" McLeod asked. "Have you all taken the votes to spend this money on this water system in public?" Barr asked McLeod again. "I'm not exactly sure where we stand on that," McLeod said.

McLeod owns the property where the town's Well #2 sits, just off Highway 1 and yards away from his McLeod Farms main offices. Just last month, the town extended a water line from the well to McBee's main water line. The construction of that line crossed McLeod's property and required crews to trench across a gravel road McLeod's farm frequently uses.

There are no permits in DHEC's files that would have given the town permission to extend any water lines. Follow up emails to DHEC's spokesman confirm that.

McLeod initially denied knowing any details about the water project when we first asked him about it following an Oct. 17th council meeting. After further questioning, McLeod offered more information that night, "You all are spending money on those wells…," Barr asked as McLeod interrupted, "We are spending money to investigate how to supply the town potable water and do it at a good, at an economical rate for these folks right here. That's what we're doing, we're investigating that," McLeod said.

We found mayor Campolong after the Oct. 17th council meeting to again ask him about the town's water plan and whether he'd offer any transparency as to what the town's plans are and how much it's cost taxpayers, "You put that down and you ask a question, I'll give you an answer," Campolong said, referring to our camera and suggesting to go off the record. "Well, I need this on the record. The question I have for you, Mr. Mayor, is: can you give us an estimate--or even a ball park-- of what you all have spent on this project to get these two wells back?" Barr asked. "No," Campolong replied. "You don't know?" Barr asked, "No, I don't." Campolong replied. "Is there a reason why?" Barr asked, "I don't know," Campolong answered.

Campolong walked past our camera to leave the council chambers before turning back to us, "You asked for me to ask you one question and I've answered you, thanks," Campolong said. "So, 'I don't know' is the answer?" Barr asked. "I'm glad you attended tonight, enjoyed having you," Campolong said as he walked away.

"We understand it's still got poisoned water in it. They open it up and it comes in on us, then what are we supposed to do?" one voter asked as she stood outside McBee Town Hall following the council meeting. "Do you trust your town council?" Barr asked the group, "No," the all replied. "Why?" Barr asked, "Because they don't listen to us," one woman responded.

"Do you think reopening these two wells in town could put all of you at risk?" Barr asked, "Yes, they better be careful the next election," one voter said.

DHEC ISSUES STATEMENT, WON'T GO ON CAMERA

The state's environmental agency declined multiple requests to interview with WIS regarding our investigation into McBee's plans to reopen two contaminated wells there. The agency did allow us to inspect all permits and applications related to McBee's drinking water system, only after filing a Freedom of Information Act.

After asking DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley multiple times to provide someone from the agency to address questions regarding McBee's water plans and the public health concerns from the contamination in the Chesterfield County aquifer, Beasley wrote in an Oct. 16th email, "I don't think an interview will add to the thorough answers provided below for this story." Beasley included responses to the questions raised in an earlier email to the agency. 

DHEC Director Catherine Templeton promised the McBee wells would be tested and in compliance before allowing McBee to operate its wells. "Under South Carolina law, water systems cannot produce drinking water for customers without approval from DHEC.  The Town of McBee has not asked DHEC to approve operation of these wells, but if asked, DHEC will conduct a scientific evaluation of the request and follow the letter of the law to make sure the people of McBee receive safe drinking water. We will absolutely test the water to ensure it meets all EPA drinking water standards before allowing it to be supplied to McBee customers."  

Beasley's email confirms that DHEC has awarded McBee "a construction permit for the wells," but wrote that McBee has not asked for DHEC approval to operate Well #1 or Well #2.

The email continues to quote DHEC regulations, assuring testing and compliance checks of McBee's wells before the town is allowed to operate the wells to provide drinking water to the people who live there.

We do not know when McBee plans to ask DHEC for permission to operate the wells.  

Copyright 2013 WIS. All rights reserved.

Powered by WorldNow