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Section 208
Water quality plan review balances use of resources

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

The plan that provides the basis for decisions affecting regional water quality will be revised over the next two years, offering an important opportunity to make it more effective, officials say.

Known as the Section 208 plan, it is required by the federal Clean Water Act. It was last updated in 1998.

“We’ve had a lot of population growth and development since then that have put additional stress on wastewater facilities,” said Daniel Newquist, 208 program coordinator with Waccamaw Regional Council of Governments, the agency that manages the plan for Georgetown, Horry and Williamsburg counties.

Through an agreement with the Department of Health and Environmental Control, all wastewater permit applications in the region are reviewed to ensure they are consistent with Section 208 goals.

An update will ensure the plan addresses the area’s current and future water resource needs and water quality issues. It should also provide a better assessment of the area’s wastewater capacity.

Newquist said he can’t predict whether revisions to the plan will make it tougher to get wastewater permits, but “if we take a look at the current status and realize the capacity has already been reached, then DHEC might sort of communicate to COG that we need to be more strict on the permits that are issued,” he said.

“We can then look at different techniques to enhance the wastewater treatment process.”

Newquist said the process will also offer a chance to make the program better for the entire state.

“This is a good opportunity to sit down and work with DHEC and ensure a thorough, exact protocol in how we manage the program,” he said. “Most of the reference material I’ve seen is, in my opinion, vague. The guidelines for conformity are a little bit subjective. It’s not cut and dry and that’s where we need to spend some time.”

Christine Ellis, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, said she also sees opportunity in the revision.

Ellis will represent the Winyah Rivers Foundation on a task force that will review the plan.

“It won’t be an easy task, but we need to try to look at the system as a whole; to look at the current standards the state has as relative to EPA standards and recommendations on contaminants of concern we need to be meeting,” she said.

One issue Ellis said she would like to see addressed is endocrine disrupters. They can come from a number of products including pharmaceuticals, such as birth control pills, and they often pass freely through sewage treatment plants and accumulate in water bodies.

She referred to a recent U.S. Geological Survey study on the effects of endocrine disrupters on fish populations. One of the major findings was the presence of abnormalities in which both male and female characteristics are present within the same fish.

The study linked the occurrence to chemicals that affect the reproductive system. It mentioned the Pee Dee River as an area of concern.

“We could extrapolate from that and say if there’s a concern in the Pee Dee, there’s probably a concern in other of our local rivers,” Ellis said.

In addition to the Riverkeeper, utility districts, academics and representatives of public interest groups will be involved in the Section 208 revision.

The plan is “a very technical document, so we have to have very knowledgeable people” working directly on the revisions, Newquist said.

But, he said, there will be ample opportunity for the public to get involved, beginning with a hearing planned for January to provide information about the process and receive public input.

In February, a Section 208 planning committee will be organized and assigned tasks.

Other workshops will also be scheduled this summer in each of the three counties to solicit input on issues of local concern. A final public hearing will held just before the revised plan is submitted to DHEC.

The revision process is expected to take about two years, Newquist said. During that time, he plans to keep the public involved through regular updates.

Newquist said one final opportunity he sees in revising the plan is increasing public awareness of water quality and the factors that affect it.

“One of my goals personally and professionally is to inform the public a little more,” he said.

“I suspect much of the public isn’t even aware a 208 plan exists.”

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