Couple hopes to prevent cove from becoming 'wasteland'

Pictured is one of several large drainage pipes that dump water, dirt, trash and other runoff from the highway and town into Chapel Branch. (Brian Troutman/WCIV)

By Stefanie

SANTEE, S.C. (WCIV) - Lake Marion is known for its beautiful waters and scenery. It's known as being a fisherman's paradise.

But if you look a little closer, you'll find a branch of water connected to the lake that is anything but serene. There's a dirty little secret involving a section of Lake Marion, known as Chapel Branch, which residents say has turned into a trash can for the town.

It's been a 20-year battle between government agencies and families on the lake who have slowly watched their beautiful backyards turn into a polluted sandbar.

"A lot of wildlife, the fishing used to be real good right over here on that dock," said Chapel Branch resident Joe Renew. "It used to be two to three little boats tied up. I used to fish and think nothing of coming out here and catching a fish for supper, but not anymore. It's just become a wasteland."

It's a wasteland that Joe Renew and his wife Marilyn have been battling for 20 years.

The Renews say when Interstate 95 was built through Santee, along with it came a lack of a proper drainage for the town. The result -- their cove turned into the dumping spot for runoff waste.

Documents dating back to 1987 indicate state officials acknowledged the use of the Chapel Branch as a sediment retention area during construction of the Interstate.

Click Here to view those documents.

Department of Transportation officials note that they intended Chapel Branch to be a temporary retention area until the drainage system was complete. But the Renews said it never became just that -- temporary.

"That's their dirty little secret. That's the secret -- that nobody knows where it goes but we see it everyday," Renew said. "When it rains all their sediment, all their trash cups, you name it, everything from the Town of Santee comes straight down to these pipes and dumps all their sediment and trash and everything come right in here in the lake."

Renew says when it rains, it pours.

"It looks like rapids to me. It looks like 50 to 100 miles per hour coming out of those pipes. We call it the double barrel shot guns shooting straight at us."

If that's not enough to worry about, when it doesn't rain, Renew said sometimes the cove turns into a sandbar.

South Carolina Department of Transportation district engineering administrator Jo Ann Woodrum says SCDOT has done all it can on the agency's end to help.

"Even though the vegetation has long been established on our right-of-way and we are not aware of any areas within our right-of-way that are contributing to the sediment problem, we continue to dip sediment (which is now coming from other sources) out of this retention area. As a matter of fact, we have a track hoe scheduled for next week to again dip the sediment out of this area," Woodrum said.

Woodrum admits though sediment is dipped from the area east of the highway (Bass Drive) on a regular basis, "silt" still makes its way into the cove where the Renews live via a concrete drainage system and large drainage pipes. She says SCDOT is committed to funding a percentage of a project to clean it up, and has been committed to do so since 1998.

"In 1998, a project was developed to address the sedimentation and SCDOT committed to 20 percent of the estimated cost to fund the project ($72,000)," Woodrum said. "This percentage represented the percentage of the total watershed that was SCDOT right-of-way. However, the remainder of the funding was not secured and the project has not happened. Should the additional funding be found, SCDOT will do all that we can to fund our portion of the project. However, please be aware that there are current budget constraints and Act 114 which may hinder our ability to fund the project."

Joe Renew is aware of the SCDOT proposal, and describes it as "depressing" that no other government agencies or leaders have worked to help fund a project to fix a problem not created by the homeowners on the cove.

"You just sit out here and think about how this is your dream home and you look around and it's like 'I want to go back inside.' It's not our dream to sit back and look at a sledge pond."

So who's to blame for what seems to be a man-made mess? The Renews say it has been a blame game between federal, state, and local agencies -- including DHEC, the South Carolina Department of Transportation and the Army Corp of Engineers.

"It's like 'you, you and you over there and let's adjourn and come back and talk about it in a couple more years.' That's what they want -- everyone to calm down and go home happy," Renew said. "We can't get an answer no one will say yea, nay most of the time it comes back and they say 'I feel sorry for you.'"

The last response the Renews got from an agency was from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Renews say they received a letter from the Army Corps saying it wasn't their agency's problem. The letter advised the Renews to apply for a permit to dredge the cove themselves.

"The Corps is not the one that caused the problems, so I can't really go in and fix it, and I don't have a program or a venue where I can really help them," said Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager, Lisa Metheney. "There is nothing we can do directly to assist them. We are not the cause of the sediment problem that we have to fix from a federal perspective."

"I can feel for them, I feel that they are very frustrated but most of what the Army Corps of Engineers does they are all done with taxpayer's money. So, a lot of them when we do a project benefits many, many people," Metheney said. "I wish there were programs that we ran that could help them. We just don't have them."

"She wants me to hire somebody and pay for it out of our pockets to dredge this cove that the county, the state, and the federal is actually causing. They are wanting us to pay for it," Renew said.

Joe and Marilyn Renew say despite all their efforts they are running into dead ends, running out of hope, and running out of time.

"They have ruined my pursuit of happiness back here, and my biggest fear is that it's only going to get worse and worse. It's not going to get any better," Renew said.

"How would you feel if I drove to your house with a tractor-trailer full of mud and dirt and dumped it in your backyard?"

* ABC News 4 New Media Manager Brian Troutman contributed to this report.