Town refuses to release water alternative study

Staff members tape sheets of white paper over the windows as Town Council enters into a 135-minute executive session to hear the findings of a water alternative study. (Staff photo by Tony Baughman)

With the shades at Town Hall drawn tight and white paper taped over the entrance door windows, the Batesburg-Leesville Town Council – and a few invited Town staff – received the findings of a publicly-funded water alternative study during a Monday night executive session.

For the moment, however, no one else but Council and their chosen few can know exactly what is in those findings.

The Town has denied both an informal verbal request and a written Freedom of Information Act request from The Twin-City News to release the study’s findings, which were the subject of behind-closed-doors proceedings lasting more than 135 minutes.

“There is no part of the study that is not completely dependent on contractual relations, whether it be with companies to put lines in the ground or purchasing finished or raw water,” Town Attorney Chris Spradley wrote an e-mail reply to the newspaper’s written FOIA request. “Everything is contractual. There is no way the Town can release information that could be used to drive up costs for its customers. Again the information is protected, and the Town cannot provide you with the requested information at this time.”

The executive session was announced just last Friday evening after 6 p.m.

At 6 o’clock Monday, Town Council opened the special called meeting – its third gathering in 14 days – in the usual fashion, with the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance, then voted to move into executive session. Rather than relocate to an anteroom off the Council chambers, as they normally do for secret discussions, Council expelled two spectators in attendance – and the press – from the Council chambers.

The room had been set up with folding tables facing a large screen. Rather than sit on the dais as usual, Council members gathered around the tables facing the screen.

Takeout pizza rested on the counter to one side of the chambers; several Council members grabbed slices as the meeting began.

The disappointed spectators – who went to their cars, grousing – and the press, which stayed behind outside on the sidewalk to await the end of the closed-door proceedings, were shuffled out into the night air. Town staff then drew the window blinds and taped large sheets of paper from a presentation pad over the small window panes in the Council chamber’s doors.

Other citizens from around Batesburg-Leesville arrived shortly after the executive session had begun to find the shades drawn and the doors locked. Several interested constituents sat in their cars with their heaters running as the temperature began to drop into the 40s; others took in a few brisk laps around the Town Hall parking lot, awaiting Council’s return to public session.

All (except the press) eventually gave up and left before the executive session ended.

“The reason for the executive session is due to the sensitive nature of the information as it would likely impact negotiations and contracts with stakeholders,” said Mayor Lancer Shull in an e-mail Tuesday morning. “That said, I’m confident in stating that Hazen & Sawyer did a wonderful job at meeting the RFP requirements and presenting the information to Council. I’m excited this step was taken. We continue moving forward in a positive manner, and there is more work to be done.”

Once Town Council returned to open session around 8:20 p.m., they took no action on the information given behind-closed-doors and quickly adjourned. Town Manager Ted Luckadoo was asked to release a copy of the water alternative study findings; the Town Attorney interceded and denied the request.

“Tonight the information presented to council is protected under FOIA,” Mr. Spradley wrote in his reply to The Twin-City News’ written request for the study findings. “There will come a time when the contractual nature of the information will be made public, but to do so at this point could damage the Town’s ability to negotiate the best deal for BL’s customers. Just as you would never tell the car dealer how much you are willing to pay for a car, the Town has to be able to negotiate without other stakeholders knowing everything. Just because public funds pay for something does not make it immediately FOIAble.”

The water woes continue

At its March 2019 meeting, Town Council selected Hazen and Sawyer, a New York-based engineering firm with an office on Lady Street in Columbia, to perform the water and sewer alternative study. Members of the Hazen and Sawyer staff attended Monday’s executive session for the privileged presentation to Council; some partook of pizza, too.

In October 2018, the Town issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the engineering firm to conduct the water alternative feasibility study. The three alternatives in the water study’s “scope of work” were:

  • Full purchase of water from Saluda County Water & Sewer Authority;
  • Full purchase of water from Joint Municipal Water & Sewer Commission; and
  • Feasibility of obtaining raw water from Lake Murray and upgrades to our existing plant site.

The RFQ document stated that Batesburg-Leesville’s efforts to solve its current water quantity issues once “included a partnership with Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority (SCWSA) for a joint venture new water production facility utilizing Lake Murray as the source water. That option, however, failed due to a falling out between parties at the time.”

Hazen and Sawyer won the bid for the now-secret water alternative study.

Last September, with much fanfare and with U.S. Rep Jeff Duncan and other dignitaries in attendance, the Saluda County Water and Sewer Authority opened a new $22 million water treatment plant 11 miles north of Batesburg-Leesville on Shealy Road.

The plant’s official mailing address is within the Leesville zip code. Mayor Shull and Town Manager Luckadoo both attended that ribbon-cutting.

The new SCWSA plant currently operates at a production capacity of six million gallons per day with the potential to upgrade to millions more as needed. The plant draws raw water from Lake Murray.

At the time, SCWSA executive director Jason Fell expressed interest in selling finished water to the Town of Batesburg-Leesville.

“We have plenty of water for ourselves as well as to wholesale to other entities neighboring us,” Mr. Fell said at the September plant dedication. “For instance with Batesburg-Leesville, they could have options to purchase capacity into the future that they could market. So if I have the ability, with high-rating this plant to six million (gallons per day), they could buy capacity shares or have options to buy capacity when they need it and be able to market to new industries.”

The Town of Batesburg-Leesville has endured a decades-long struggle to find a reliable raw water source for its customers. According to its 2018 Water Quality Report, the Town draws from two raw water sources to serve its main treatment facility:

  • the Town Pond, a reservoir located on the south side of town about a mile from the water plant; and
  • the Brodie Pond Pump Station, located on Lightwood Knot Creek, about seven miles from the Town Pond.

Raw water is pumped from Lightwood Knot Creek, through the Brodie Pond Pump Station to the Town Pond. That raw water is then fed to the Town’s water plant for treatment.

The Town’s existing water plant is permitted for a treatment capacity of 2.4 million gallons per day. Currently, the Town also wholesales water services to the Town of Ridge Spring.

Batesburg-Leesville’s No. 2 water system, located in the Lake Murray area on the boundary of the Lexington Three School District, purchases water from the Gilbert-Summit Rural Water District (GSRWD). The GSRWD currently operates eight wells drawing from the Middendorf Aquifer, also called the Charleston Aquifer, which runs deep underground to the coast from the Fall Line raking across the Midlands.

The Town of Batesburg-Leesville has continued to make repairs and improvements to its aging water system while it searches for a potential new raw water source.

Just this week, on Tuesday, the Town opened bids for planned improvements to the Brodie Pond Pump Station. That project, led by Summit Engineering Group of Spartanburg, would include “replacement of two existing vertical turbine pumps, electrical system upgrade, process metering equipment and installation of a cellular monitoring and control system. The Town has pre-purchased the pumps including installation and start-up,” according to the bid announcement.

Whether the Town will release the full text of the now-completed – and still secret– raw water alternative study in time for area residents to have their voice in the future of water in Batesburg-Leesville remains to be seen.