Are high levels of the bacteria E. coli at the Horry County Solid Waste Authority landfill a potential harm to the public? Or are the people raising concerns about the bacteria politically motivated to denigrate the Solid Waste Authority?
That’s an issue Horry County officials began tackling Wednesday morning when county administrators, including County Administrator Steve Gosnell, Coastal Carolina University scientists and county police officers descended on the Solid Waste Authority’s Conway landfill to collect their own water samples in an attempt to to verify if levels of E. coli in ponds are potentially harmful to residents.
But other county officials, including members of the county council and leadership of the Solid Waste Authority, think the concerns about E. coli in landfill ponds is little more than a false pretext to raise concerns about how the Solid Waste Authority is run. It’s normal to have contaminated water in landfill ponds, they say, and there’s no evidence that the E. coli is seeping into nearby swamps and streams.
Those raising concerns, said Solid Waste Authority landfill operator Mike Bessant, want to “discredit the authority and to try to make them look bad.”
“Everybody’s always after us to try to get us down,” he said in an interview Wednesday.
The aim of discrediting the Solid Waste Authority, Bessant and others said, would be to dissolve the organization and bring it back under the direct control of the county government. Doing so would give county administrators and county council members more control over the county’s garbage operations. Doing so would have political and economic consequences in Horry County, Bessant said.
The uproar over possible E. coli contamination at the Solid Waste Authority, though, comes as Horry County experiences severe growing pains. Thousands of new residents move to the county each year, thousands of new homes are constructed, and millions of dollars change hands each day. Those who already live here protest new development, while newcomers and existing residents alike demand new infrastructure and services. And more people means more garbage. Already, partially due to the coronavirus pandemic, the county will likely have to raise taxes to pay for the increase of trash residents generate.
“Whoever controls the garbage in this county controls the county,” Bessant said. “And that doesn’t just happen here, it happens everywhere. It’s not just Horry County, it’s everywhere. It’s just the garbage business.”
Those pushing for the additional testing, though, including Council member Al Allen, say their aim is to take politics out of the matter, use proper scientific techniques to identify any problems, and work out solutions from there.
“In everything pertaining to local or state or federal government you’re always going to have politics involved of some sort,” Allen said Wednesday. “Hopefully the science will override and take the politics out of it at this point.”
A whistleblower, E. coli, and a hunt for water samples
Why Horry County leaders are focused on E. coli contamination at the landfill begins with a whistleblower.
At an otherwise routine meeting of Horry County Council’s Infrastructure and Regulation committee Tuesday afternoon, the local blogger David Hucks stood up and spoke at the start of the meeting, when members of the public are allowed to address the council.
A whistleblower from the Solid Waste Authority had come to him, he explained, and believed that outflows from the landfill’s retention ponds contained abnormally high levels of E. coli, a bacteria found in the intestines of people and animals. Some strains of E. coli can give people diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses or pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though he was initially squeamish about publishing a story with the whistleblower’s concerns, Hucks said he eventually made a deal with the person: The person, who had access to the landfill, would collect water samples from the places they felt were contaminated, and then immediately hand them off to Hucks, who would be parked on a nearby street. Hucks then put the samples on ice and drove them to Columbia to have the lab Rogers & Callcott Environmental run a number of tests. Hucks said the whistleblower collected the samples on Feb. 24, and he drove them to Columbia later that day.
To complete the tests, Hucks wrote “a pretty huge check,” and said he paid $1,300 to the lab. By March 31, the lab had completed dozens of tests on the samples and concluded that the outflows the whistleblower tested contained nearly 40,000 units of E. coli per 100 milliliters of water, or dozens of times higher for a single sample than the federal Environmental Protection Agency says is safe to drink.
At the meeting, some council members quickly posed the question: How could they be sure the whistleblower’s samples weren’t tampered with, and that the data was accurate? Allen said he had an idea.
So, Wednesday morning at 9 a.m., Allen, Gosnell, three county police officers — led by Sgt. Heather Wilson — as well as other county and Solid Waste Authority officials, piled into vans and SUVs and drove around the landfill and Sterritt Swamp area to collect samples. Danielle Viso, who helps run Coastal Carolina University’s Environmental Quality Lab, was the one to take the samples and pack them into a cooler of ice. Her lab will analyze the water taken from two sites along Sterritt Swamp — one upstream from the landfill and one across the street — and two sites within the landfill, and deliver results to county officials later this week.
Hucks, who describes himself as a journalist, said he brought the lab results directly to county council members — rather than publishing a story about it — because he felt it was the safest option for himself. In the past, Hucks said, he’s written articles about E. coli contamination in waters closer to the beach, work that put him “through five years of hell” because local leaders said he was wrong.
“When the results came back, (I still wasn’t) warm and fuzzy about running this story because I realize that everyone is going to be pointing fingers at everybody else, so I prayed about it, and I decided that the best thing was to present this to them here today,” he told The Sun News Tuesday.
Whether the samples collected Wednesday verify Hucks’ results or dispute them, he said, he feels he did the right thing.
“If it comes back and they test it and it comes back that all of this is poppycock, nothing off my (back),” he said.
Allen, too, said the purpose of collecting additional samples is to verify Hucks’ results, “good or bad.”
“I felt it was necessary for us to conduct our own sampling out here,” Allen said. “It’ll either prove or disprove what was presented.”
Is it just a bird problem?
Water quality experts, however, have suggested the hubbub over the E. coli at the landfill may be moot, in part due to a body of other data, and because birds.
Seagulls, to be exact.
At the county’s landfill, throughout most of the year, masses of seagulls and other birds flock to the feeding frenzy that is everyone else’s garbage. Driving around the mounds of waste, a loud noise or potential predator can spook masses of birds into the air, swooping and circling by the thousands.
And, like all living creatures, when those birds are finished digesting their meals of leftovers, they poop.
“I would kind of expect there to be high bacteria there, and it’s not necessarily from humans. There are a lot of birds out there,” said Cara Schildtknecht, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper with the Winyah Rivers Alliance.
Thom Roth, the county’s stormwater manager who was on site Wednesday when the samples were collected, agreed.
“If it’s anything, it would be from birds most likely,” he said.
To manage water at the landfill, the Solid Waste Authority has set up a complex system of natural flows, retention ponds and tanks. For the water that filters through the piles of garbage, called leachate, the Authority has a collection system that funnels it into tanks that eventually pump it to Grand Strand Water & Sewer to be cleaned. For stormwater and other water that runs off of the mounds of waste, the Authority also has a system of retention ponds with dams that collect the water, allow bacteria and other harmful substances to settle to the bottom, and send cleaner water on through to surrounding swamps. It’s a slow process, and bacteria like E. coli typically attach to sediment that settles at the bottom of those ponds, meaning less of it leaves the landfill.
For birds to be the cause of the spike, their poop would have to wash into those retention ponds, and then make it through the natural filters.
But Roth explained that even though those retention ponds contain contaminated water, what matters is what actually leaves the site — most contaminates stay on the landfill’s property and don’t infect the surrounding land.
Both the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Winyah Rivers Alliance monitor what leaves the Solid Waste Authority’s site, and Roth and his team are notified of spikes in contaminates. He said he hasn’t seen E. coli spikes near the landfill, and Schildtknecht said high levels of turbidity and conductivity in the Sterritt Swamp water — not E. coli — are more common issues. DHEC doesn’t require the waste authority to test for E. coli as water leaves the site, though volunteers with the Winyah Rivers Alliance regularly test for the bacteria.
According to the data collected by the Winyah Rivers Alliance — which scientists at Coastal Carolina University verify — levels of E. coli at Sterritt Swamp sites are historically low. Between 2009 and the present, about 90% of the samples collected by the volunteers at the sites nearest to the landfill come in below federal drinking water standards for the bacteria, and outliers are few and far between. One of those outliers was determined to be caused by animals on a nearby farm, not the landfill.
In fact, water samples from Sterritt Swamp tested for E. coli between Feb. 24 and the present showed those typically low levels of the bacteria.
“In all honesty, I’m not really surprised at the bacteria levels,” Schildtknecht said. “I’m not saying Sterritt Swamp is perfect, it’s one of the sites we have the most concern about, but in terms of E. coli, not so much.”
With some county officials believing that the E. coli levels at the landfill may not be as significant of a problem as others think, they conclude that political motivations may be behind the concerns about the bacteria.
“It’s always political, or it’s sour grapes,” Solid Waste Authority Director Danny Knight said. “It’s amazing that DHEC didn’t know anything about it but it had to be brought up before the I&R committee and before the press. So you weigh that out.”
Several county officials, including Knight, have said “a faction” of council members have wanted to dissolve the Solid Waste Authority.Doing so would give county officials more oversight of the landfill and garbage collection operations, but some fear it could invite undue influence from private garbage haulers.
“There has been a faction in Horry County for some time that wants to see the Solid Waste Authority come back under the county and be a county agency and that has been going on since I’ve been on council,” said Council member Johnny Vaught. “And I don’t know what their motives are…but that issue has been out there before and we’ve discussed it before.”
Knight said in his time at the Authority, private haulers, like Donald Godwin’s Unlimited Sanitation, which currently hauls trash for the county, have sought to obtain more county business in the past. John Weaver, a former Horry County attorney who briefly served as County Administrator, said the national hauler Waste Management has also sought more county business in the past.
But Godwin on Wednesday said he didn’t have an opinion on whether the Solid Waste Authority was separate or under the county — it wouldn’t affect his business one way or the other.
“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Our contract is with the county. There would be no advantage whether it’s under the (Authority) or the county.”
Knight and Bessant both explained that taking business away from the Solid Waste Authority could cause the taxes county residents pay for garbage to go up. The Authority is self-sufficient, they said, and pays for all of its operations, capital projects and future operations through dumping fees, and a small portion of tax money it receives from the county. The waste authority also operates without any debt, they said. If a private hauler were to take a piece of the waste stream coming into the landfill — thereby reducing the revenue from dumping fees — the authority would need to drastically raise those dumping fees, or ask for more tax money from the county. That’s something the authority hopes to avoid, both said.
Knight said he hopes the County Council will continue to support the Solid Waste Authority. That’s typically how conflicts have played out in the past, even though some council members “get on the soap box and scream.”
Vaught, for his part, said he’ll continue to support the authority.
“I’m not in favor of bringing it back under the county,” he said. “As far I’m concerned they do a good job out there.”