Fighting for sewer systems
Some summer days, the smell keeps everyone in the family inside but nine-year-old Andrea Tapia.
"It smells so bad," said Andrea, a student at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts who, despite the stench, plays on her trampoline and in the clubhouse her father built at their trailer park near Spanish Wells Road.
Nearby, a neighbor's smelly, open septic tank lurks, the sludge inside at the same level as the surrounding grass.
About a dozen similar, foul-smelling tanks full of feces and other waste dot the neighborhood's grounds. Residents have attempted to cordon them off, fashioning nets out of PVC pipe and tarps. Other neighbors have placed pieces of plywood over them.
But when it rains, the makeshift solutions don't work, and the sludge comes pouring out. A few months ago, a little boy tripped and fell into a sewage pile, Andrea said.
While the Town of Hilton Head Island has been working to increase access to sewer lines -- which are more sanitary and safer than septic tanks -- progress has been slow.
Andrea's trailer park is one of 920 properties on Hilton Head that still lacks sewer access. One property could represent a single household or scores of homeowners.
Some of those who live on those properties don't want access to sewer lines, including many property owners in nearby Spanish Wells Plantation. They have the large lots and money to properly maintain a septic system.
But others such as Andrea's family can't afford hook-ups to sewer lines and can't pay to maintain their potentially harmful septic tanks. As the town and Hilton Head Public Service District continue to build sewer lines in low-income neighborhoods, town officials are realizing the next hurdle is paying for homeowners to connect to the pipes. A hook-up can cost thousands of dollars, in addition to monthly utility payments.
Several town council members vowed this year to find a way to pay for the connections. Many fear the potentially harmful environmental effects of failing septic systems.
But no plans have been unveiled.
November's mayoral election renewed public interest in the issue.
The focus is now on town budget deliberations starting May 5, and a planned "sewer summit" next month at which council and utility officials will decide on plans.
Meanwhile, those without sewers continue to wait.
"I struggle to get the little money that I have. It seems like little things to someone else, but to me it's huge," said event planner Veronica Zacarias, Andrea's aunt. "We pay taxes, but we're not a priority to the town. It's sad."
SEWER SERVICE EXPANDS
After a heavy rain, it's not uncommon for Rochelle Williams to step from her back door into an ankle-deep mound of sludge.
The former mayoral candidate lives on Sam Frazier Retreat, where she says eight of 15 homes have failing septic tanks. During wet spells, the neighborhood green space often floods with feces.
"The drain field is ripped apart, so we have 'matter' all over the yard," she said, referring to the field where the wastewater is cleansed before it returns to the environment. "When it rains it stays flooded for days ... the children have nowhere to go."
It was cases like this that led the town and the utility to decide to expand public sewer in 2004. Typically, sewer extensions are paid for either by developers or property owners.
Officials say septic systems are ill-suited for the island's high water table, sandy soil and rain levels. Such conditions can result in tank failures if the system isn't maintained properly.
These failures threaten public health and the environment.
"Septic systems sending pollution into waterways, that can be an issue, and we are concerned with that," said Public Service District general manager Pete Nardi.
Since 2004, the town and utility have spent a combined $8.5 million to install main lines in areas such as Stoney, Chaplin and Baygall.
The results are encouraging. In 2004, sewer was available to about 80 percent of the district's customers. Now it's available to about 95 percent of the district's customers. About 93 percent have hooked up, Nardi said.
"Connections have been pretty strong where we've done it," he said.
It will cost between $2.4 million and $6 million to finish the projects, according to budget documents. Once completed, every property on Hilton Head Island will have access to sewer.
But will everyone connect?
Veronica Miller lives near Squire Pope Road, where a sewer project was completed in 2012. But she hasn't tapped in, concerned she cannot afford to do so. Such connections can cost between $1,500 and $13,000. Instead, the Stoney/Squire Pope Property Owners Association president has had her septic tank pumped several times.
But regular pumpings aren't always enough. In early spring, her grandson was home to help her clean the backed-up mess in the bathroom of her Murray Avenue home, though they didn't finish in time to get to church.
The pair soaked up the dirty water with quilts, towels and blankets.
"You may as well put all that in the garbage," she said.
She'd like to see the town step in and cover at least some of the costs of tapping into the sewer system.
"I don't see the reason why the town can't afford it," she said. "They can afford everything else they want to afford."
'A MAJOR FOCUS'
There are programs to pay for residents to hook up.
Project Sewer Access for Everyone provides grants to low- and moderate-income families to cover the full or partial cost to connect to public sewer. It's part of the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry.
Since 2000 it's handed out $800,000 worth of grants to 300 households. The Public Service District pays for the connections up front; it's reimbursed after the foundation collects donations.
Right now the utility is waiting for about $400,000 in reimbursements, Nardi said.
For the program to continue, officials say more money is needed to cover the costs for those want to tap in.
"We're going to have to make that a major focus moving forward," said Mayor David Bennett. "My conception of it is after we bring it to people's attention, I think the public will rally around the idea and get it done."
The program appeals to Elnora Aiken.
In the past three years, the Hilton Head resident has had her septic tank pumped three times after sewage backed up into her bathtub.
Each time, the 67-year-old pulls out the supplies she used for nearly half her life as a domestic housekeeper -- gloves, bleach, buckets and towels -- and cleans out the tub herself.
The cloths and paper towels from the job fill a garbage bag.
"The most fortunate thing is it usually happens on a weekend," when she doesn't have to be at work, said Aiken, who lives on Evelina Road.
Mayor Bennett says he's willing to use public money to make sure these situations don't happen.
"We're a world-renowned resort island known for beachfront mansions and magnificent gated communities," he said. "Yet we have residents, citizens in our communities, that don't have access to sanitary sewers. To me, I don't know how to reconcile that."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.