The (Charleston) Post and Courier. June 28, 2021.

Editorial: Summerton water contamination points to widespread SC failures beyond water

At first glance, the failures that led to contaminated drinking water in the tiny Clarendon County town of Summerton look like a simple matter of incompetence or dereliction on the part of one company, and an elected official who thumbed his nose at the law and hid whatever role he had in the disaster.

It’s hard to see why most of us should care.

After all, the disrepair and neglect that resulted in contamination and forced customers in the already impoverished community of Goat Island to boil their water or buy bottled water for more than two months was confined to a single small water system; it doesn’t affect our water. And we don’t live in Summerton, so that town council member doesn’t affect anything that happens to us.

In fact, though, the contamination highlights inadequate public health protections at the state level; reveals the need for more detailed government contracts; and demonstrates how our state ethics law fails to protect the public from the sometimes-conflicting private interests of public officials.

As The Post and Courier’s Stephen Hobbs and Thad Moore and The Sumter Item’s Kayla Green report in the latest installment of our Uncovered investigative project, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control only discovered the contamination this spring after residents contacted the agency to complain that the water was making them sick — even though a consultant has since found that pumps were broken down, safety equipment had been removed, weed killer and ant poison were scattered near wells and a water storage tank hadn’t been cleaned in 12 years.

That raises new questions about DHEC’s ability to identify problems in the drinking water systems that it’s supposed to regulate. In the past, the agency has been criticized for going too easy on small-town and rural water systems that endanger customers’ health, and lawmakers have failed to give the agency more authority, or more of a mandate. This suggests a problem at an even more basic level, which the Legislature needs to address.

The town apparently didn’t have any contracts that spelled out precisely what Blackman Laboratory was being paid to do for more than two decades before the town council voted in 2020 to have it take over all the water systems. That makes it difficult for the public to tell how much of a role Blackman played in the problems and whether council members (and rate payers) were getting their money’s worth.

Coming on the heels of reporting a month earlier about a systemic effort to evade state procurement requirements at John de la Howe School, it suggests lawmakers should consider requiring detailed contracts whenever governments spend over a certain amount with one company over time.

Summerton Town Councilman Chalmers Stukes participated when the town turned operations of its water systems over to Blackman even though he works for the company — which few people apparently realized because he didn’t report that relationship on his annual ethics disclosure reports. That demonstrates how easy it is for public officials to get away with violating the reporting law and the recusal mandate that flows from it.

It’s unclear what Mr. Stukes does for Blackman Laboratory, which was already doing work on the water systems when he was elected in 2014. But Mayor Mac Bagnal, who defended Mr. Stukes, told reporters that the councilman “operated” the Goat Island system for the past year or two and wasn’t clear about whether he was supposed to report problems to the company or the town. (Here’s an idea: both.) That suggests at least the mayor knew about Mr. Stukes’ employment — and yet didn’t object when Mr. Stukes kept voting on matters that affect the company.

Did other members of the council know about Mr. Stukes’ employment? Did they also fail to raise objections regarding his apparently illegal votes? Was that why they voted to expand the company’s role? Is it why the town didn’t have any sort of quality-control system in place to make sure the company was doing the job it was being paid to do? We don’t know.

But we do know that one reason we require people to report who their employers are — and to recuse themselves — is so we can raise those questions. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference in this case; maybe it would have.

And we know that unless someone knows enough to file a complaint, the only way ethics officials can tell if people are leaving information about potential conflicts of interest off of their annual reports is by auditing those reports against tax filings and bank statements.

It would cost too much for the State Ethics Commission to audit all the 22,000 ethics reports that state and local officials are required to file every year. But we certainly could afford to do random audits for compliance. Conduct enough of those audits so people feel like there’s some risk of being caught, and enact tough enough penalties for violations, and we’d significantly improve the behavior of officials who otherwise would be tempted to just ignore the law. Particularly if they also faced high penalties for failing to recuse themselves in those cases where an audit could show they were required to.


The (Orangeburg) Times and Democrat. June 25, 2021.

Editorial: Mosquitoes another threat of the season

Summer has officially arrived. We’ve already seen the impact of the weather, in terms of both seasonal storms and a tropical system. But summer brings another unpleasant reality that is due renewed focus: mosquitoes.

In recognition of National Mosquito Control Awareness Week (June 20-June 26), the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control has tips to help prevent bites from mosquitoes.

Fighting mosquitoes is important beyond the obvious fact that no one wants to be bothered by the blood-sucking insects.

At least 61 different species of mosquitoes exist in South Carolina, but fortunately, not all of these bite people. Mosquito bites can not only cause itchy welts on the skin, but they can also cause serious health issues by spreading diseases. The most common diseases that could potentially be carried by mosquitoes in South Carolina include West Nile virus, eastern equine encephalitis virus, La Crosse encephalitis virus, Saint Louis encephalitis virus, and dog/cat heartworm.

“As warm weather arrives and people encounter more mosquitoes, protecting yourself from bites becomes more important,” said Dr. Chris Evans, state public health entomologist with DHEC’s Bureau of Environmental Health Services. “DHEC’s surveillance program helps identify cases of West Nile virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in our state. Most mosquitoes are just a nuisance; however, we detect West Nile virus in mosquitoes in our state every year.”

The American Mosquito Control Association recommends three “Ds” to keep mosquitoes away:

• Drain: Empty out water containers at least once per week.

• Dress: Wear long sleeves, long pants, and light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

• Defend: Properly apply an EPA-registered product that contains a repellent such as catnip oil, citronella/citronella oil, DEET, IR 3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, picaridin, 2-undecanone, or permethrin-treated clothing. With all repellents, be sure to follow product label instructions.

Local governments also play a key role in protecting residents through mosquito control and cleanup efforts that eliminate mosquito breeding habitats. Mosquitoes can lay eggs in as little as a bottle cap of water. Get rid of standing water that can regularly accumulate in buckets, flowerpots, grill covers, tires, trashcan lids, outdoor toys, and other yard decorations or debris.

Pet and livestock owners should take steps to protect their animals. Last year, from June 24-Dec. 4, DHEC detected eastern equine encephalitis (EEE) virus in 17 horses in 10 counties, 13 of which occurred in the summer. Vaccines can be effective in protecting horses against EEE and West Nile. Pet and livestock owners should consult with their veterinarian.

Despite being pro-active against mosquitoes, staying inside during the peak mosquito-biting times of dusk and dawn is the primary way people can reduce their chances of being bitten. And if you go outside during those hours, wearing long pants and long shirts (yes, even in the heat) is your best bet against the bite.


The (Greenwood) Index-Journal. June 23, 2021.

Editorial: On Katherine Hall’s future

We’ll readily admit being more than a bit confused following last week’s Ware Shoals Town Council meeting when the topic of renovating Katherine Hall rather suddenly surfaced with councilman George Leagans advocating for the razing of the storied building.

Leagans admitted he had supported the renovation of the building that is essentially the central focal point of the town, but now he and others on council say tear it down.

But it’s a bit more complicated. Council cannot simply entertain a motion to tear down the building and take a vote. Katherine Hall’s renovation, to the tune of nearly $4 million, is among the 27 projects Greenwood County voters supported when they cast ballots on the proposed Capital Project Sales Tax in 2016.

Town Council cannot simply say to the county administration, much less to the rest of the voters and residents of Ware Shoals, “Hey, thanks for supporting this project, but we don’t want it any longer.” And it’s unlikely the town’s residents themselves can take a vote to say yay or nay on moving forward on the project.

In fact, it was the town that presented the proposal to have CPST dollars fund the renovation. Armed with a study and a 31-page report on what the project would entail, the town offered that Katherine Hall could house town offices, include a recreation center and serve as a performing arts venue.

With all that said, however, members of council have brought forth some interesting points, points worthy of further review.

If the nearly $4 million price tag were sufficient to bring Katherine Hall up to snuff as a community building, what then? In its original proposal, the town offered that rent, tax revenue, donations and service fees would be enough to maintain the nearly 16,000-square-foot building. Councilwoman Patty Walters not only suggested the price tag to renovate was inadequate, but also that the town would not have the money for upkeep.

Leagans, Walters and Kent Boles — Boles calling the restoration project a pipe dream — laid out the more bleak picture of Katherine Hall’s future, but not all were or are on board at this point.

There’s no question that $3 million-plus is a large chunk of change, and it should not be wasted. If Katherine Hall’s restoration is to be done, there most assuredly needs to be a solid plan for its future. Otherwise, it will likely wind up looking like the town’s eyesore it is today.

Money continues to be collected by the county to fund the 27 CPST projects. Before Katherine Hall’s number comes up, some people had best have some serious conversations. Moreover, they’ll need to explore the legalities surrounding the use of the funds earmarked for what long, long ago served as Ware Shoals’ vibrant town center.


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