Uncovered: Summerton water tank wasn’t cleaned for years as sludge grew inside. Apparently no one noticed.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced in collaboration with The Sumter Item, an Uncovered partner.

SUMMERTON — The sludge grew inch by inch with each passing year inside the water tank that fed a nearby housing complex. The blanket of grime was at least a foot deep in some places, and turned the tank’s white interior black and brown.

Apparently no one noticed it. Not the town of Summerton and the company it hired to operate the water system. Not the company employee who also happened to work as a county water official. Not the state health department, which did not look inside the tank during regular visits.

The revelation only came after residents complained about their water quality. Summerton hired a new water operator this year who found the tank hadn’t been cleaned in more than a decade. He had it inspected.

The mucky buildup found inside is a striking example of the disarray the town of Summerton’s water systems were in. Earlier this year, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control found broken equipment, concerning test results and records that were allegedly falsified. DHEC ordered fixes, and the town became the subject of state and federal investigations.

The episode also shows a gap in how drinking water is protected in South Carolina and across the country, an investigation by The Post and Courier and The Sumter Item found. The state and federal governments don’t require the inside of water tanks to be inspected, instead only recommending it. That leaves it up to local officials to carry out inspections. If they don’t, layers of sediment that sometimes harbor harmful bacteria can go undetected.

The newspapers reported in June that a member of Town Council was employed by Blackman Laboratory, the company hired to operate Summerton’s water systems. Although he was checking on some of the town’s systems, the councilman apparently did not warn Summerton officials that they needed major repairs. The town also did not appear to have a written contract with the company until this year. That has created confusion to this day about who should have been doing what, especially with the dirty water tank.

The newspapers' collaboration is part of Uncovered, an initiative by The Post and Courier to team up with community news outlets across the state. The goal is to explore voids in oversight and questionable conduct in areas with few watchdogs. So far, the effort has found officials disregarding state laws and engaging in nepotism, conflicts of interest and excessive spending.

Even as Summerton works to fix the mess, residents who drank water from the dirty tank have struggled to shake the distrust it bred. After all, state regulators and the town missed the blanket of muck at the bottom of the tank.

“Somebody failed along the way, or the system failed them,” said Beth Gladden, who lives in the condominium complex the tank feeds. “I don’t know which.”

At the water’s edge

The row of three-story buildings that make up the North Shore Villas complex sit near where Interstate 95 crosses Lake Marion. Each home is just a few hundred feet from the lake.

Beth and Bubba Gladden moved to the community last year. The couple had hoped to spend their retirement years taking in views of the water from deck chairs and entertaining grandchildren.

Their new home was a little over an hour’s drive northwest of Charleston, far away from the headaches of traffic backups along Highway 17 near where they lived in Mount Pleasant.

“We thought we’d died and gone to heaven,” Bubba, 71, said in an interview.

But then they noticed issues with their water. It was discolored when it flowed from faucets and filled up their toilets. Shower curtains turned brown. A conversation over drinks with some of their new neighbors told them they weren’t alone.

John Peace, 59, had moved to the complex in September 2019. He found sediment in toilets and sinks, and he noticed white clothes came out beige after they went through his washing machine. So Peace stopped drinking the water and giving it to his dogs. He stocked up on bottled water, storing stacks of 5-gallon jugs in a nearby shed.

The Gladdens grew concerned, too. They worried their grandchildren might accidentally drink the water when they bathed. They installed a filtration system and talked to more neighbors.

“The minute that we learned it was not just us — that this is a facilitywide issue, a communitywide issue — we started knocking on doors and asking questions,” Beth, 65, said.

They weren’t alone. On Goat Island, a section of development along a creek that feeds into the lake, residents on another Summerton-owned system noticed strange health issues and sediment in their water.

Eventually, the town hired a new water operator, Jay Kates, to investigate its systems. He documented a troubling comment from North Shore’s property manager: Out of 72 water customers there, 70 had complaints.

Later, the state health department noted violations across six town water systems and mandated changes.

At North Shore, that included inspecting the system’s 132,000-gallon tank.

Looking inside

When Kates took over North Shore’s system, he quickly suspected that residents’ complaints of discolored water meant there was a problem in the storage tank.

The complex’s water had lots of iron, which caused a problem he’d seen before. Treating iron-heavy water with chlorine causes a reaction that produces a rusty sediment. When the treated water comes to rest in a tank, layers of muck settle on the bottom.

A blanket of sediment can make the water treatment process less effective and foster bacteria. Experienced water system operators know that when lots of iron is present in water, tanks need to be cleaned regularly, Kates said.

So when a tank inspector opened a hatch on the roof and peered in, the scene inside was predictable.

“I can’t see the bottom,” the inspector called down.

Inside, at least a foot of sludge had accumulated, Kates said. When the tank was finally cleaned with a pressure washer in August, a steady flow of water the color of chocolate milk streamed out. The floor of the tank turned white again. And the volume of complaints began to fall, Kates said.

When Peace saw videos of the tank being cleaned — of the grime rolling off its walls — he felt nauseated, he said. The water he cooked with, brushed his teeth with and gave to his dogs used to pass through there.

The cleaning was the tank’s first in at least 12 years, according to a report by Kates. The town also failed to produce any records of past inspections when DHEC asked for them; Kates said he hasn’t found any documentation either.

In hindsight, the lack of cleaning is not altogether surprising. Neither the town nor Blackman Laboratory, the company it hired, was required to check inside the tank or clean it out.

DHEC requires that tanks be inspected from the outside once a year. The agency also recommends that the interiors be inspected and cleaned every three to five years, which is in line with what the water industry’s top trade group suggests. But that isn’t a requirement.

At North Shore, that recommendation was not followed.

Don Johnson, who co-founded Blackman Laboratory, did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Larry McDowell operated the system for years as a Blackman Laboratory employee. He also worked as Clarendon County’s director of water and sewer. In an interview, he said he remembered it was the town’s job to have the tank cleaned. 

But William Brailsford, the town’s former longtime public works director, said that isn’t his understanding.

Still, DHEC signed off on the North Shore tank on at least five occasions since 2013, records show.

DHEC inspectors are not required to look inside tanks, in part because climbing on top of them poses a safety concern. An agency spokeswoman said DHEC uses water testing to identify health risks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency only requires states to include storage tanks in their drinking water inspections. It doesn’t tell them how thoroughly to investigate. And while some states do look inside tanks, they are in the minority, according to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators.

Colorado is one of them. It made changes after an estimated 1,300 people in a small city got sick with salmonella in 2008. Investigators connected the outbreak to a water tank that hadn’t been thoroughly inspected. The state suspected the bacteria could have hidden in a thick layer of sediment. It now requires regular inspections — inside and out.

The EPA acknowledges that sediment could be a problem nationwide. A document it published this year said that without thorough inspections, contamination in storage tanks could go undetected. It cited links between gunk in tanks and the bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease. It is considering rule changes, but won’t make a decision for a few years.

Kates said the buildup of slime in North Shore’s tank speaks to a failure to set better expectations for drinking water systems and the people who run them. If DHEC doesn’t enforce best practices and towns don’t write contracts requiring inspections, he doesn’t expect water operators to push for them either.

Yet Kates is stepping into the void of responsibility. He cites a duty to do so: Water operators in South Carolina are licensed by the state, and they agree to follow an ethical code to “protect the safety, health and welfare of the public.”

With the tank now clean, Kates plans to have it washed out at least every three years. Even so, undoing the damage to residents’ trust will be a tougher task: Some said they are still wary of the water that comes from their taps.

Regardless, Kates said, someone will be looking inside their tank from now on.