Residents of Orangeburg’s Northwood Estates have long been concerned about the aging sewer system in the neighborhood.

The help they were seeking finally came during a recent Orangeburg City Council meeting, when members agreed to take over the private system.

“We are so happy to try to bring some resolution to Northwood Estates,” Orangeburg Mayor Michael Butler said during council’s March 15 meeting.

Council unanimously passed a resolution allowing the city’s Department of Public Utilities to take ownership of the sewer system. That gives it the greenlight to conduct the necessary repairs to upgrade the aging system.

The Northwood Estates System has been privately owned since the creation of the neighborhood.

The system was owned and operated by Midlands Utilities, which became Synergy Utilities. Synergy was responsible for collection and keeping the lines maintained.

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DPU was paid to transport and treat the wastewater from the system.

The system’s high sewage treatment costs have been blamed on groundwater infiltration, which led to customers having to pay for the treatment of the extra water that entered the sewer system.

Synergy defended its maintenance of the system.

Now Synergy Utilities is being purchased by South Carolina Water Utilities Inc. and the new owner has agreed to give the system up.

“The DPU had long recognized the challenges being faced by the residents of the area,” DPU spokesman Randy Etters said. “However, as it was a private system, we were unable to provide them with any relief from the higher-than-average monthly sewer bills.”

“The DPU has been an ardent supporter of the residents of Northwood Estates as they have sought to lessen their bills,” Etters continued. “We have offered the system owners use of our equipment, account data, hosted meetings and used significant DPU resources in pursuit of a resolution.”

“We are thrilled that they will become members of our wastewater system as they will enjoy a locally managed system with rapid response times and costs that are among the lowest in the state,” Etters said.

DPU already provides the neighborhood with electricity, gas and water services.

The opportunity to take over the sewer system was brought about through the efforts of the Orangeburg County legislative delegation, including former Sen. John Matthews, the S.C. Office of Regulatory Staff and the S.C. Public Service Commission, Etters said.

DPU Manager Warren Harley noted the efforts of Orangeburg City Council and Orangeburg County Council.

“I know the residents of Northwood Estates will be excited to get DPU as their full-time sewer provider,” Harley said.

Matthews said, “It has been a long journey.”

He said the legislative delegation met with DPU, the mayor and City Council and was able to provide some assistance on the state level to help move the process forward.

“This brings that to closure,” Matthews said. “A lot of people will be happy. DPU has been providing water and treating sewer for years. It is a logical sequence in resolving the issue.”

As part of the transition, DPU will not be required to purchase the existing infrastructure and the system will become part of DPU’s overall collection system, Etters said.

“All costs will be layered in under the existing rate structure,” Etters said. “Our monthly service charge that is applied to every service on our system will be used to operate and maintain that system as well.”

Etters said the utility does not see any reason for existing rate payers to experience a rate increase as DPU will now own the system.

“We expect the sewer rates in the neighborhood to be reduced substantially,” Etters said. “I am confident that the removal of the groundwater from their billing will have a dramatic positive effect on their monthly bills.”

Harley said a date has not been settled on yet as to when the transition will occur.

“That is one of the final details of this process that we are working through,” Harley said. “We will have community meetings with the folks from Northwood Estates so they know the process of everything they need to do in order to accept service through DPU.”

Council’s decision allows DPU to move forward with executing all the necessary documents. Legal representation will be had throughout the process, Harley said.

Northwood Estates Homeowners Association President Barbara Williams said the news has been a long time coming.

“We can’t figure out why it took so long, but we are glad it is happening right now,” she said.

There are currently 103 occupied homes in the subdivision.

Homeowners are pleased DPU is taking over the Northwood Estates sewer system, and there are hopes that the change will mean good things for homeowners, she said.

“The big things are lower bills for us, a healthier water system and better service,” Williams said. “We are counting on DPU to put that in place for us.”

Williams said homeowners have been paying high prices for sewer over the last decade.

“We are also hoping now they will go over the system that each household will now pay the amount of wastewater they are using and not have everyone pay the same amount,” Williams said. “Our bills mirrored. For example, if our cost was $80, my neighbors’ was $80.”

Williams hopes that when DPU takes the over system, “they will make the repairs to make it more effective.”

She said the neighborhood has often suffered from line breaks and water leaking into the sewer system.

Several years ago, Orangeburg County paid to have the system evaluated. At that time, the estimate to repair the system was approximately $1.9 million.

“We expect that figure to be higher today,” Etters said.

The county will help the utility pay for system stabilization, he said. About $400,000 in American Recovery Plan Act money will go toward improving the system.

Another study of system will be conducted.

“That is an area where the citizens have been done wrong, where they are paying an exorbitant amount of charges,” Orangeburg County Administrator Harold Young said.

Orangeburg County Council Chairman Johnnie Wright said he’s elated the city is taking over the system.

“That has been a long, drawn-out process and a lot of back and forth trying to get help with the sewer system. It has been going on for a long time,” Wright said

Wright said the resolution is the result of everyone working together.

“My hat’s off to City Council,” Wright said. “We appreciate the teamwork to take this over.”

The system needs infiltration mitigation, as a large percentage of the system discharge is ground water.

“This would include the reworking of all existing taps, manhole repairs, pump station upgrades,” Etters said. “We may end up finding it to be more feasible to install new collection infrastructure in certain areas of the neighborhood.”

Etters said DPU will begin engaging engineers to craft a rehabilitation plan once all legal particulars have been completed.

“I would not foresee any major work being done this year,” Etters said. “However, the residents will still benefit because they no longer will be paying for the ground water. That will be absorbed by the DPU.”

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