DHEC: Work to clean polluted cove behind schedule

The photo above was taken from the small wooden bridge that crosses Chapel Branch in Santee. It does not show the problems beneath the surface of the water. (Brian Troutman/WCIV)

By Brian

SANTEE, S.C. (WCIV) -- A mother and child stood at the top of the small wooden bridge -- grins on their faces from ear-to-ear. Watching bass jump and seeing bream swim inches below the water in Chapel Branch was a treat.

The Chapel Branch community rests along a cove of Lake Marion lined with beautiful homes, resort condominiums and within a short boat ride of Santee State Park. The mouth of the cove opens to what many consider to be South Carolina's true bass country.

There's little indication of trouble in the water, but those who live there are well aware. Chapel Branch is polluted. In November of 2006 Chapel Branch was listed as a priority area of study and cleanup by South Carolina's Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Water sampling in the area revealed elevated levels of nutrients in the water, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus.

A water sampling study that ensued was headed by the U.S. Forest Service. It was completed several months behind schedule due to uncontrollable circumstances created by historically low water levels.

Residents in the area took seeing fish in the water as a sign the overall project was complete and action to prevent non-point source pollution (runoff from yards, roads and businesses) from getting into the cove was already in place. DHEC says that's far from the truth.

"The forest service put together a preliminary TMDL (total maximum daily load) document, and they have given us that document and we have started to work," said DHEC non-point source and TMDL manager Wade Cantrell.

Cantrell said the project manager assigned to Chapel Branch is no longer employed with DHEC, and work on other projects has since further delayed work the Chapel Branch project.

"The project manager on that, left us," Cantrell said. "So actually it has been sitting for a short time."

In the meantime, Cantrell said the nutrients found in the water in Chapel Branch, mostly elevated levels of phosphorus, are not toxic and should not be a threat to human health. Given the right circumstances, he said, high levels of phosphorus could prevent fish from living or reproducing in the area.

"We're just focused with the fact we are going to have to get a project manager up to speed," Cantrell said. "It is something we have with us and plan to be working on. It has just been put a little bit on the back burner."

Chapel Branch resident Joe Renew says he doesn't need DHEC to tell him what is happening in the water, he can see it with his own eyes. In recent years, when water levels are lower, a fluorescent green algae covers the cove and makes it hard to move boats. Fish, Renew says, aren't seen. On many days of the year, Renew says the cove looks more like a swamp.

"This used to be bass country," Renew said with a look of disgust on his face. "You once saw two, three, four boats at a time out here fishing in this cove. You don't see that anymore."

Hearing DHEC's project is behind schedule is no surprise to Joe Renew or many other residents of the Chapel Branch area of Santee. From sunken barges found in the mouth of the cove near Ballard's Landing in 2008 to an ongoing battle over runoff bringing tons of sediment and sand into the cove, they have been battling unfortunate circumstances for more than 20 years.

Ask them, they'll tell you. They feel like the area's "dirty little secret."

Their property is no longer what they purchased, and from the backyard of Joe Renew, the tranquil view of a cove fit for swimming, boating and fishing is no more.

"You are paying taxes like you are living in a resort, but in reality, it's a swamp," Renew said. "The big shots are getting all this money to do all this studying, and it seems like they can just go out there and say yea or nay. It's not like this type of thing hasn't happened in a creek before."

For more on the ongoing battle against sediment and sand threatening the property of homeowners in Chapel Branch, watch upcoming broadcasts of ABC News 4 or check for updates. If you would like to watch a 6, 7 or 11 p.m. broadcast, but live outside our viewing area, you can watch via our live stream (click here).