At a time when it seems politics have invaded just about every aspect of modern life, it only makes sense that it should find a way into even our most intimate of settings.
In this case, flushing your toilet.
For years Greenville County has been mulling over the possibility of unifying its multiple sewer collection agencies under one entity. To the average citizen, the debate has remained (forgive the phrasing) under the surface of our local political discourse, something discussed in the latest Comprehensive Plan and occasionally brought up at County Council before being temporarily shelved once more.
But that may soon change.
New plans proposed by the county offer the most substantive step yet toward bringing the county’s independent sewage collection agencies together by July 1, 2021. The plan, proposed at the council’s meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 3, has already received broad support among the development community, the industrial community and the environmental community as well.
But the leaders of the independent sewage collection agencies, which will be most directly impacted by the change, have expressed a decidedly less optimistic view of the proposal.
“We are totally, 100% against this,” said Tremeir Johnson, wastewater superintendent for the Parker Sewer and Fire District. “This is will be terrible for our constituents. Worse, it’s not going to solve any problems they say it will.”
A quick history lesson
The men and women who run Greenville County’s independent sewage collection agencies, otherwise known as “special-purpose districts,” talk a lot about history.
Like most history tales in the county, it all goes back to the textile mills.
The earliest mill village in Greenville County, Mills Mill, came into existence right around the start of the 1900s. Other mill villages soon popped up: Woodside, Monaghan, Poe, Brandon, Judson and more.
To meet the sanitary needs of the mill villages, the South Carolina legislature created the Parker Water and Sewer Subdistrict in the early 1930s, which took over responsibility for installing and maintaining water and sewer lines.
In the years that followed, more subdistricts were created, and today there remain in operation seven independent special-purpose districts in the county: Parker, Berea, Gantt, Marietta, Taylors, Wade Hampton and Metropolitan.
In recent decades, the sewage lines within these districts – some of which are the original clay pipes installed nearly a century ago – have begun to show their age. A recent comprehensive needs study conducted by CDM Smith, a Boston-based engineering and construction company, found more than $275 million worth of repairs needed in the special-purpose districts alone over the next 20 years. And that’s just to maintain the current capacity, let alone to meet the need of a county that is expected to add an additional 220,000 residents in that same time.
The plan put forth by County Council would combine all the special-purpose districts under the control of the Metropolitan Sewer District, otherwise known as MetroConnects, which is by far the largest special-purpose district in operation.
But Johnson and other special-purpose district leaders said consolidation would eliminate much of their history in favor of an ineffective bureaucratic approach that neglects the individual needs of the area.
“Making sure districts keep their individuality and historic significance is important for us,” Johnson said. “Change is necessary sometimes, but I don’t want people to come in with this broad brush and paint over the history and the people who are still here.”
The case for consolidation
Carol Elliott, who serves as Metro’s general manager, said even with her special-purpose district taking on hundreds of millions of new maintenance costs over the next two decades, she fully supports the plan for consolidation.
“We’re very much in support, because we want to provide a consistent level of service for all the customers located in the unincorporated areas of Greenville County,” Elliott said. “Right now, those service levels vary vastly.”
It’s worth noting that these independent sewer districts do not treat wastewater; they merely collect it, before funneling it through pipes to one of the nine treatment plants operated by Renewable Water Resources, or ReWa, which provides wastewater treatment to Greenville County and portions of Spartanburg, Laurens and Anderson Counties.
ReWa CEO Graham Rich, who is also on board with the proposal, said consolidation would allow for more uniformity in a system that is already thoroughly interconnected.
“Whatever happens upstream with our nine treatment plants is affected by what these other districts are doing – or more importantly, not doing – in maintaining their system.”
Both Elliott and Rich are quick to point out that sanitary sewer collection can be a highly technical field with highly disastrous consequences for failures.
A major issue for the sewage lines in Greenville County is what is known as “inflow and infiltration” – in other words, rainwater that seeps into aged infrastructure, thus increasing the amount of water that is unnecessarily treated at the plants – an added burden that increases cost and can lead to functional issues.
For example, the ReWa treatment plant at Mauldin Road typically treats about 16-18 million gallons of waste per day. This past February, when Greenville County saw 5.9 inches of rainfall, the plant had to treat 93 million gallons of wastewater in a single day.
“That’s just from 5.9 inches of rain – not a hundred-year event or some major once-in-a-lifetime storm, but something that is becoming more and more common,” Rich said.
If ReWa can’t assure the proper treatment of wastewater, the Environmental Protection Agency could file a consent decree that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and remove authority from local actors. Columbia is currently under such a consent decree at a cost of $750 million.
Under such a decree, ReWa would be held legally responsible to pay for that cost.
“Or we could face a lawsuit from a third person like the Sierra Club,” Rich said. “The point is, we need to take action on this.”
Elliott also pointed to consolidation as a means of leveraging a larger-sized organization for more significant grants, what she calls “free money that will be just another way to meet the financial needs of these areas that are in disrepair.”
The case for independence
Johnson, the wastewater superintendent at Parker, has been working with the district since the early 1990s. He knows many of his district’s residents by name. Many have his cellphone number, and they know where to reach him.
“That’s a blessing and a curse,” Johnson said, laughing. “When they got any issues, they know right where to find me.”
That accountability, Johnson said, is what keeps Parker working effectively, despite growing financial strain on the district.
As in other special-purpose districts, board members at Parker are voted in every six years. If consolidation were to occur, that board would be dissolved.
Johnson and other special-purpose district leaders have expressed concern that Metro will funnel tax dollars out of the communities that need them most, in favor of more profitable development elsewhere.
“Our special-purpose district is led by elected commissioners who are responsible to our community for local tax revenues that remain in our local community,” said Jeff Hannah, commissioner with Taylors Fire and Sewer.
“We know and understand our area, and our independence allows us to remain focused on the economic development and growth needs in our specific area of the county,” he said.
Johnson, for his part, laments that institutional knowledge could be lost or ignored in a system that covers such a broad swath of the county.
“I feel betrayed, because I don’t think they’ve been honest with us about this process,” he said. “They don’t talk to us at all about this. So if there’s no communication there, I feel they’re going to minimize the importance of the people who really know these areas.”
He said an overarching approach wrought by consolidation, led by people who lack an intimate understanding of each are’s unique system, would only lead to increased inefficiency, thus negating a key argument for consolidation entirely.
On Metro’s end, Elliott said employees at the special-purpose districts will remain on staff even with consolidation and has promised no rates for residents would increase until 2023, at which point rates would go up 3% each year to meet the maintenance costs.
“But the longer we wait, the more it costs to repair these lines,” Elliott said. “Ultimately the rate payers will be burned with that, and Greenville’s sewer will be so expensive, no one will want to pay it.”