A crew from Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority surveys damages in advance of repairing a corroded pipe that caused an overflow of sewage into Battery Creek. COURTESY BEAUFORT JASPER WATER AND SEWER AUTHORITY

Shellfish beds in Battery Creek and on portions of the Broad River are now open for harvesting. South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) reopened the beds in mid-February after they were closed Feb. 1 following discovery of wastewater flowing out of split pipe into the waterways.

Local waterman Larry Toomer, owner of the Bluffton Oyster Company, said the affected area was not where he harvests his plump shellfish, but for others – including adventurous individuals who take their boats into local waterways in search of same – knowing when an area is open or closed can be healthy knowledge.

The closure came after Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority (BJWSA) reported a significant overflow of wastewater into Battery Creek, forcing immediate closure of shell fishing in the creek and portions of the Broad River, from the Broad River Bridge south to Archers Creek and east to Malecon Drive in Parris Island.

The overflow was discovered after a BJWSA customer reported a strong sewer odor. When crews responded to the location, they discovered the overflow and began repairs.

Laura Renwick, DHEC public information director, said that in this specific incident, BJWSA reported that an estimated 500,000 gallons of wastewater was released.

“DHEC has established guidelines that require permit holders to determine which types of releases are significant and require reporting,” she said. “However, permit holders must report any spill that is more than 500 gallons in size, poses an immediate danger to human health or the environment, or any amount that impacts waters of the state.”

The cause of the overflow was determined to be the result of an 18-inch horizontal split in the ductile iron main. Once the soil was eroded, that exposed the pipeline to saltwater during high tides, eventually leading to premature failure of the pipe.

“The wastewater was right out of the sewer on its way to be treated. What happened was there was a pipe that was a few feet in front of the outfall of a 54-inch storm drain pipe. In time the stormwater washed away the soil that was covering the ductile,” said BJWSA spokesperson Pamela Flasch.

Section 48-1-95 of the South Carolina Pollution Control Act defines a “significant spill” as a discharge of at least 5,000 gallons of untreated or partially treated domestic sewage. When a spill or overflow is discovered, permit holders are required to contact the local DHEC office within 24 hours and report the incident, which BJWSA did.

“After this incident, we conducted an after-action analysis with multiple departments throughout BJWSA to assess the event and identify any necessary follow-up actions,” said Flasch. “As a result of this pipe failure, our preventive maintenance group will use GIS data to identify force mains at a higher risk for potential corrosion that could lead to a pipe failure.”

BJWSA is also looking into using alternative pipe materials, such as PVC and high density polyethylene that could be used where pipes are at a higher risk for corrosion.

“To protect public health, a 21-day closure for shellfish is the requirement minimum for a harvesting area impacted by sewage,” said Renwick. “Any discharge of sewage into the environment is undesirable and has the potential to impact water quality. When a sewage leak or spill occurs, it’s important for the responsible utility to make immediate repairs to stop the leak and clean up as much of the discharge as possible as quickly as possible.”

DHEC personnel do not usually conduct the actual cleanup of a spill site, but they are available to provide support and ensure any discharge to the environment is properly addressed.

The closure was a federal requirement under the Food and Drug Administration’s National Shellfish Sanitation Program. The NSSP is a federal and state cooperative program that monitors the sanitary control of shellfish produced and sold for human consumption nationally and internationally.

“Water quality can change very quickly, but in general, people should not be in direct contact with a body of water that’s impacted by a sewage spill until it’s known that bacteria levels within the waterway are within normal range,” Renwick said. “Once the spill ceases, water quality and plant and animal life typically recover quickly.”

For more information on clam and oyster harvesting areas in Beaufort County, call DHEC’s Beaufort Environmental Affairs Office at 843-846-1030 or visit scdhec.gov/shellfish.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.