In 2009 Business Insider rated Myrtle Beach as among the 12 dirtiest beaches in America. Business Insider stated: Major Offenses: Tested repeatedly for high levels of bacteria for the last three years.
In 2013, the Greenville News (Greenville SC) reported that Myrtle Beach had among the highest bacteria levels of any beaches in the State. High bacteria levels on a beach can be harmful and, at times, deadly for swimmers. The Government of Virginia put out the following advisory for its tourists should any of its beaches get a high bacteria rating: “The most common recreational water illnesses are gastrointestinal and may cause vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, abdominal pain or fever. These illnesses result from swallowing water contaminated by disease-causing organisms. Contact with contaminated water can also cause upper respiratory (ear, nose and throat), and wound infections. Young children, the elderly, and those with a weakened immune system are particularly vulnerable to recreational water illnesses.”
As a result of ongoing poor ratings, the city of Myrtle Beach has since spent $11 million each for building what are called the Ocean Outfall projects. Two Outfall projects are now completed. Mike Wooten, recently nominated as S.C. Highway Commissioner, is the founding member of DDC Engineers. DDC Engineers is the firm that Myrtle Beach has employed to build the two $11 million each outfalls that are now in operation. The massive pumping barge is visible from the beach. That’s how close to the shoreline it was built. Its purpose is to pump water dumped into the Atlantic by the City of Myrtle Beach’s system of non-sewage wastewater outfall pipes. You don’t have to be a scientist to see why this causes serious problems. The tides and currents being what they are pose a threat in a natural recessed segment of the shoreline. Studies for areas like the local Long Bay and reports from similar areas have shown that much of that “bad water” can end up right back were it was dumped and pumped from to begin with.
The purpose of these outfalls are to pump water with higher contaminated bacteria levels farther out to sea. The idea is that this water would then be diluted by the larger ocean itself. Environmental concerns remain however about the negative impact this run-off water might have on endangering the marine ecology.
Four decades ago, Larry Schwartz — a retired Coastal Carolina college instructor now living in Florida — advised the city on the outfall situation as it existed then. He was working at the Waccamaw Regional Planning Council and received hundreds of thousands of federal dollars for a study under the EPA’s Nationwide Urban Runoff Program, which was designed to evaluate the impact on our coastal area bodies of water from non-sewage and non-industrial sources of water pollution from diffuse sources such as runoff from streets.
The study found that the impact of those sources on rivers, streams and oceans was cumulatively more than that from sewer plants and industrial sources combined. The study meticulously laid out plans for upgrading the existing outfall setup to make it more efficient at its intended purpose, and to minimize the adverse impact on the ocean water quality. Among the measures suggested were state of the art filtering systems, upgrades and repairs to existing pipes, as well as placing them the optimum distance apart to assure that no areas of the shore had a double load of effluent dumped into the water at any given time. It was a way to vastly improve the system. All of the suggested improvements were long overdue at the time.
The city and other involved officials accepted the study, according to Schwartz. Schwartz told our team, “They basically patted me on the head and did nothing.”
Inside of a decade, though, the city and county began to work, on a regular basis, with the man who was to become their “go-to guy” in the area of outfall — as well as on other projects involving engineering and heavy equipment. That man is current chairman of the South Carolina Department of Transportation, Mike Wooten. As President and Principal Engineer of DDC Engineers in Murrells Inlet, Myrtle Beach resident Wooten most recently took responsibility for the construction, implementation, and maintenance of the pumping station located offshore and within viewing range when standing on the beach on the south end of Myrtle Beach.
One of Wooten’s partners in DDC Engineers is Brent Schultz, former Horry County Councilman for District 2. Both Wooten and Schultz have also served in leadership positions with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, as well as with the Grand Strand Business Association — not to mention other interlocking and overlapping auspices in our area. While we at MyrtleBeachSC.com applaud their level of community involvement, we recognized that wearing all these hats does raise questions about whether or not it can lead to conflicts of interests for engineers doing regular business for cities and counties in our area.
In Mike Wooten’s time as a DOT commissioner and vice-chairman, questions have been raised by several media outlets that the chairman lacks full transparency on the way public funds are allocated and spent. Reports are that Wooten has even been known to discredit whistleblowers and watchdogs who raise legitimate questions about these issues. A report in specific was by our State Newspaper which documented an email between the commissioner and Brad Dean, Area C.E.O. of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber.
Water quality is both an issue for tourists as well as endangered species. We reported recently where a rare right whale was sighted near Folly Beach, S.C. On its projected path, this whale should have navigated past the beaches of Myrtle Beach over the last short week — passing our beaches a few miles out of sight in deeper ocean waters. Concerns about the safety of these magnificent mammals exist on multiple environmental and conservation-minded levels, given that only 450 of them still exist. But this is not a report about the plight of the right whale. Rather, the fact of such a rare species navigating the waters into which Myrtle Beach runoff water has been pumped points directly to the duty of care we share as citizens to assure we are not “fouling the nest” where our precious ocean resources are concerned. This is essential, not just out of concern for ocean ecology in the general sense. Tourism and the fishing industry are at risk when water pollution is not fully addressed at every level.
Questions have been asked in local media such as “The Nerve” if the same group of engineers wearing so many hats and being on so many interlocking agencies, commissions, boards, etc., creates a situation where they are mainly policing themselves. Records show that Mike Wooten has been routinely awarded no-bid contracts for work on every project he’s ever done in this area. The term “no–bid contract” is a popular phrase for what is officially known as a “sole source contract” which means that there is only one person or company that can provide the contractual services needed, so any attempt to obtain bids would only result in that person or company bidding on it.
Beach water quality is too vital an issue to merely accept that these big players in that field with strong governmental connections and affiliations with the powerful Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce are not, in some way, gaming the system. With the documented history of beach water quality in this area routinely reported by various sources as being among the poorest in the nation, and with a system in place that appears to maintain only the minimal acceptable levels of bacteria along our coast, small merchants and area residents continue to monitor the ongoing water quality effects produced by these new Outfall projects.
Current DHEC LONG TERM NO SWIM ADVISORY ratings indicate that this matter is still unresolved and does deserve ongoing attention.