SUMMERTON — Years ago, this small town bought a handful of water systems near Lake Marion. And for years, they produced problems: complaints of mysterious illnesses, weeks-long orders to boil water, a pair of criminal investigations and a deeply fractured trust between the town and its customers.

But finally, at a recent town council meeting, Summerton had good news: The town could soon start work on a $2.2 million, state-funded project that leaders believe will alleviate water quality concerns. The state had also just agreed to put another $12 million of COVID stimulus money toward its water and sewer systems, rehabilitating and consolidating its aging infrastructure.

Yet Summerton, a town of about 800 in Clarendon County about 60 miles northwest of Charleston, has a difficult task ahead to convince residents that the water is OK. The town, after all, got that money in large part because it had water quality problems, and it has yet to break ground on the first of three projects.

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In recent months, more concerns have emerged about how it managed the water in the past. Two town employees were criminally charged in January with providing the state Department of Health and Environmental Control with falsified documents, two years after a town staffer told an inspector they had been told to make up data. And the system operator hired to turn things around quit because he felt the town staff wasn’t listening to him.

Separately, the State Law Enforcement Division concluded that a former town councilman who once operated the system didn’t misuse his office by voting on matters that benefited his employer. Records show, however, that SLED agents made up their minds about the case in a matter of days, and they conducted only a limited review of town records during their brief investigation.

SLED’s investigation was prompted by a 2021 article The Post and Courier published as part of Uncovered, its initiative to expose questionable government conduct in partnership with community newspapers.

The long-running issues have bred a deep distrust among many of Summerton’s water customers, especially those who live outside town limits near Lake Marion and the Taw Caw Creek, where residents stack cases of bottled water in their homes and warn new neighbors not to drink the tap water.

Nearly 60 customers sued the town and its contractors in March, accusing them of failing for years to provide drinkable water. They also sued DHEC, which they say failed to detect the problems. A majority of the plaintiffs claim the water made them sick.

In addition to money damages, they are seeking a court order requiring that the town’s systems be cleaned up once and for all.

New management

Summerton’s water troubles date back for years. But for Jo-Ann Reap, they began last fall, when she moved to a small community called Goat Island, where vacationers and retirees share a few blocks of waterfront property in an eclectic mix of condominiums, mobile homes and site-built houses.

Reap fell in love with the quiet of the place on a vacation years ago, far from the roar of fighter jets and traffic at home in Sumter, near Shaw Air Force Base. She checked Goat Island real-estate listings for years. She didn’t hesitate when a home on her favorite block hit the market.

But a few days after she moved in, she was chatting with a new neighbor, who asked a startling question: “You’re not drinking that water, are you?”

Reap had been. The neighbor cautioned her not to, so buying bottled water became part of the routine of her new life, like so many of her neighbors’. But it was frustrating. When she ran low, the Dollar General was several miles away, and it was often sold out of water.

She had questions about her water bill, too, so she decided to sit in on Summerton Town Council’s May meeting, joining them in the cafeteria of a former high school building, where the menu board still advertised an order of meatloaf for $1.

She took a seat in one of the plastic blue chairs and heard town leaders discuss their plans to build a new water tower to feed Goat Island’s water, a proposal meant to prevent dips in water pressure that create an opportunity for contamination. The town also hopes to add a system to disinfect the water by injecting it with chlorine, if there’s money left in the budget.

Summerton’s water troubles date back to 2017, when the town agreed to buy four small systems that supply water to a handful of developments near Lake Marion, including Goat Island. At $235,000, the systems cost the town less than most homes. But they soon generated problems.

By 2021, the town’s new customers were complaining about the water quality, DHEC had opened an investigation, and a new contractor laid out a litany of problems. That included equipment that hadn’t been maintained, missing paperwork, and ant bait scattered around a well. Heightening residents’ frustrations, one of the men hired to operate the system at the time had a seat on town council.

Summerton is trying to make a clean break, with a new mayor, administrator and water operator and a mostly new town council. When the state announced charges against two employees, the town issued a statement emphasizing its new leaders — “none of whom bare (sic) any responsibility for these current events.”

So when Reap stood to ask if she could drink the water, she was assured it was safe. DHEC says the town is complying with enforcement orders issued two years ago. The current operator, Joey Oliver, said he hasn’t seen any problems in the water quality testing since he arrived last fall.

But Oliver’s answer nodded to the town’s past problems: “What happened prior to us coming,” he said, “I wouldn’t have any comment.”

Airing problems

The Summerton customers’ lawsuit airs those issues, and it points repeatedly to a report written by Jay Kates, the contractor who laid out pages of problems he thought the town should address.

Kates’ company, Lexington-based Water Systems Inc., was hired to turn the systems around. And in his estimation, the town has come a long way since then.

Summerton replaced a “decrepit” water tank at Goat Island and added disinfection to its water, Kates said. It fixed poorly maintained pumps and found unlicensed water lines that were causing the water pressure to drop, which he suspects could have caused contamination. He came to believe that the town’s main problem was that it lacked the expertise to identify problems early.

But last year, Kates split ways with the town. The lawsuit, filed by the Summerville firm Knight and Whittington, accuses Summerton of failing to follow his recommendations. In an interview, Kates said town employees were operating equipment they weren’t licensed to use and wouldn’t listen when he told them not to.

“We didn’t want to go backwards,” Kates said. “I think everyone means well there, but I just don’t know if they have the expertise to actually do the things that need to be done the correct way.”

Summerton has not yet answered the lawsuit. Mayor Tony Junious did not respond to questions about the allegations.

And now Summerton’s past issues are being aired in criminal court, too.

False reports

Talk of faked records in Summerton date back more than two years, when someone on the town’s staff made a startling admission to a DHEC inspector.

Summerton’s volunteer town administrator had gotten complaints about the water quality. She asked DHEC to come in for a special visit and give the town’s systems a top-to-bottom review.

When DHEC inspector Roxanne Stiglitz arrived in March 2021, a town employee told her the records were unreliable: at least five types of data the town was supposed to keep — “and potentially others” — had been changed or simply made up, according to a letter Stiglitz wrote after her visit.

Someone — an operator who handled the water or a manager who oversaw it — had also “instructed (staff) to forge data in log books,” Stiglitz wrote. On a follow-up visit, Stiglitz elaborated: In the past, the town employee told her, they’d been told to “fill in missing data” for the required daily visits to the town’s wells.

Later that month, the town hired Kates to take another look. Kates noted at least 11 places throughout Summerton’s water and sewer systems where there should have been logbooks for operators to record their visits — but there were none. At a 12th location, the logbook was unfinished, according to a report of his findings.

At the town wastewater treatment plant, the logbook was complete, but it had a major problem: It had been filled out in advance. Kates visited on March 23; there was already an entry for March 24.

These findings triggered a criminal inquiry within DHEC, which has a small law enforcement arm to investigate environmental crimes.

Earlier this year, on the same day the S.C. Attorney General’s Office opened the closely watched murder trial of disbarred attorney Alex Murdaugh, one of its prosecutors was in the Clarendon County Courthouse, where two Summerton employees were facing a judge for the first time.

Their charges: misrepresentation of facts related to the operation of a public water system. Indictments handed up by the county grand jury allege that Amanda Salka, a former town clerk who’d been promoted to town manager, and Anthony Smith, Summerton’s public works supervisor, gave DHEC falsified records in August 2020.

But the indictments don’t specify what records were falsified or whether anyone was instructed to make up data. Nor do they address the pre-filled logbook Kates found in 2021. Though DHEC has closed its investigation, it declined to release its detailed findings when The Post and Courier requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act, citing the ongoing criminal cases.

Smith’s attorney, Nelson Parker of Manning, declined to answer questions about the case, other than to say Smith is owed a presumption of innocence. Salka’s attorney, assistant 3rd Circuit public defender Scott Robinson, did not respond to requests for comment.

Still, the criminal charges haven’t cut Smith out of the water systems entirely. After he was charged and suspended from his town job, Oliver said he hired him as a consultant. Smith’s new job is a point of contention in the customers’ lawsuit, but Oliver said Smith’s work is limited to helping him locate parts of the system he can’t find and helping cut the grass.

Meanwhile, the man whose job was to make daily checks of Summerton’s water systems was cleared in a separate criminal investigation.

SLED investigation

The State Law Enforcement Division’s investigation into Summerton’s water wasn’t focused on water quality or recordkeeping, but the conduct of its town council.

SLED Chief Mark Keel personally requested the investigation to determine whether former Summerton councilman Chalmers Stukes IV took votes that benefitted his employer, Blackman Laboratory, a company one of his relatives owned. His request came weeks after The Post and Courier and The Sumter Item reported on Stukes’ ties to the company and the water quality concerns in Summerton.

SLED made quick work of the case. Less than two weeks after agents conducted their first interview, a SLED agent talked with one of Stukes’ attorneys, Shaun Kent of Manning. Kent left the conversation with the understanding that SLED thought the allegations were baseless, according to a letter he sent investigators.

“I trust pursuant to our conversation … it is your belief based on your 60 years of investigative experience that you see this case has no merit and should be dismissed so that Mr. Stukes can go on with his life,” Kent wrote in the letter, which was included without comment in SLED’s investigative file.

When the agent gave his opinion, SLED had not concluded its investigation, and agents had not interviewed Stukes. SLED did not answer questions from The Post and Courier about the conversation; Kent did not respond to requests for comment.

SLED’s investigation consisted of seven interviews and a review of Summerton Town Council’s meeting minutes from 2014, when Stukes took office, through 2018. It’s unclear why the review stopped there. Stukes held office until 2022.

But in their final report, investigators included the minutes from one meeting outside their initial review — a meeting in 2021 when Stukes recused himself from a vote on the water system.

Had investigators expanded their review, they also would have found a meeting from 2020 at which minutes show the town council voted to “let Blackmon’s Laboratories (sic) take over all water systems.”

Stukes was present for the meeting and participated in a closed-door discussion before the vote, minutes show. The minutes do not show he recused himself.

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