State officials will consider allowing oyster and shellfish harvesting in Albergotti Creek and part of the Beaufort River where it is prohibited.
The reclassification would be an unusual move -- one that has not been made in the area, according to Reed Armstrong, South Coast Office project manager for the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental organization.
"It's a big step forward, and I think a very big tribute to the community and their concerns about water quality in the area," he said.
S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control officials met with residents and other interested parties last week as part of a public-comment period. It also is the start of a multi-step process to reclassify the waters that is expected to continue into 2015.
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The change was requested by an oysterman, according to DHEC.
The process includes public hearings, extensive water testing for fecal coliform and approval by the state legislature, among other steps.
Water quality in these areas has improved after Beaufort-Jasper Water & Sewer Authority consolidated four military and municipal sewage treatment plants in the late 2000s, according to BJWSA chief operating officer Chris Petry.
Functions at the plants on Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, Shell Point in the town of Port Royal and Southside in the city of Beaufort were shifted to the current BJWSA plant on Castle Rock Road. Treated wastewater is now discharged in one place, near the J.E. McTeer Bridge, instead of three locations on the waterways. With higher standards and improved technology, the amount of particulate matter in the treated water declined about 90 percent, Petry said.
Since the plant opened in 2006, fecal coliform was only reported once in treated water, Petry said. A power outage was to blame, and additional precautions have since been put in place to prevent a recurrence.
"The consolidation of those discharge points led to a much improved ecological impact on the water," Petry said. "... This plant is much more reliable, and that's very important and critical to this effort to convert these waters to shellfish harvesting waters."
If the waters are reclassified, shellfish could be harvested from the area and sold. If there were problems in the future, conditional and temporary restrictions could be placed on the water, similar to what happened when stormwater runoff contaminated the May River in Bluffton in the late 2000s.
Armstrong supports the idea of reclassification if water test results warrant it. DHEC will test 30 samples, and a station set up on the Beaufort River in January is showing favorable results, according to DHEC. A station will be set up on Albergotti Creek in January.
A notice of proposed regulation will be presented to the DHEC board in early to mid-2014, and there will be a 30-day comment period and another public information forum.
The board will hold a public hearing next fall, and if approved, the reclassification amendment would go before the state legislature in 2015.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.