Streams of a poisonous, potentially cancer-causing substance recently were found draining to the Wateree River from SCE&G's coal-fired power plant in lower Richland County.
Consultants discovered elevated levels of arsenic seeping from an earthen wall along the power plant's 80-acre coal ash waste pond, just a few miles upstream from Congaree National Park. The wall is supposed to block pollution from moving out of the pond and into the Wateree River, less than 300 feet away.
One of the consultants, J.C. Hare, said leaks he saw last month in the earthen wall created two streams of arsenic-tainted runoff that in places measured several feet wide.
"It's flowing surface water; it looks like a small creek," Hare said.
Hare is working for a farmer who lives nearby. But the contamination also was found by a consulting firm working for SCE&G.
Their reports, to be discussed this week as part of a court case against the power company, raise new questions about SCE&G's ability to contain pollution on the property - and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control's inability to stop the problem, critics say.
Some area residents fear pollution from the site could one day taint their drinking water, ruin the Wateree River and lower property values.
"As a kid, I grew up fishing in that river," said 63-year-old Robert Deveaux, a New York psychotherapist who wants to retire to his family's land near the power plant. "This makes me very angry and very frightened."
SCE&G officials declined interview requests by The State newspaper, but said in a statement they "look forward to elaborating further" on the test results in court.
The coal ash pond has leaked toward the river before. But Columbia lawyer and state Rep. James Smith is worried that it has happened again.
He'll bring that up in administrative law court Tuesday in his case for farmer Heath Hill, who's challenging state permits allowing SCE&G to put a 17-story landfill at the power plant. Smith said the Department of Health and Environmental Control should never have given approval for the landfill.
"How can DHEC grant them any additional right to further pollute the Wateree River and our land?" Smith asked. "Both DHEC and SCE&G have a responsibility to ensure compliance" with environmental laws.
DHEC spokesman Thom Berry declined comment last week when asked about the court case.
Arsenic seeping from the coal ash pond during the past 15 years has contaminated groundwater beneath the property at levels exceeding the federal safe drinking water standard, records show. Seepage also has been found between the pond and the Wateree River, a 2000 SCE&G report shows.
DHEC cited SCE&G in 2001 for violating groundwater standards for coal ash pond leaks, but did not fine the company. Instead, the power company struck a deal with DHEC, pledging to try to reduce the groundwater contamination.
Smith says the groundwater pollution is continuing - and so are surface-water leaks to the river. That should be a concern to everyone, he said.
The Wateree River flows past the state's only national park, Congaree, and feeds into rivers that form Lake Marion, a popular recreational spot and drinking-water source.
At the same time, many people in Lower Richland depend on backyard wells for drinking water.
Recent tests of Carolyn Williams Sumter's 50-foot-deep well didn't find arsenic. But she said the long-term impact of SCE&G's 39-year-old power plant remains a concern. She doesn't want to see her well water polluted nor does she want arsenic flowing into the river that for years supplied fish for her family's dinner table.
Any pollution could prevent the Eastover-Wateree area from growing, she said.
"First, there is contamination. Then our environment suffers. Then it's the growth of the area," she said.
Records show SCE&G has been working for years to remove ash from the pond. The company has said it works diligently to comply with environmental standards.
Officials note the landfill will have a synthetic liner - something the ash pond does not have. The landfill is being built to contain wastes captured by the plant's new air-pollution control devices, which are expected to reduce mercury and sulfur dioxide releases up to 95 percent.
SCE&G has said arsenic drainage to the Wateree River was not having a major impact on fish or water quality. It contends in state documents that any groundwater pollution is confined to its land and is in the upper part of an aquifer that it says people don't drink from.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element, also created by industrial practices, with a history of use as a poison. The Romans once relied on arsenic to kill political enemies because the material has no odor or taste.
Short-term exposure in high enough doses can cause nausea, vomiting, skin disorders and death. Long-term exposure to certain forms of arsenic has been linked to cancers of the bladder, lungs, kidneys, liver and prostate, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. People are often exposed to arsenic through drinking water or eating food tainted by the material.
Although it occurs naturally, arsenic is also produced by burning coal and has been used as a pesticide on farm fields.
Coal ash ponds have been a source of concern in the past year because of their potential to spill and leak toxics onto the countryside. A huge spill in Tennessee last year focused attention on coal ponds. The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it was working on tougher rules for coal waste discharges.
The September tests for both Hill and SCE&G show similar contamination at the containment wall near the Wateree River, as well as in groundwater.
Soil contamination also was found in at least one drainage ditch that extends to Hill's land from SCE&G's property, records show. The power plant is between his land and the river.
The consultants' tests did not find pollution in private wells or in the Wateree River. They did find pollution elsewhere. And it was significant, records show:
- A reading by SCE&G's consultant of 1,900 parts per billion at one place along the Wateree River containment wall. That's more than five times the state surface-water standard. A reading of 1,600 parts per billion was found in the same area by farmer Hill's consultant.
- A reading by SCE&G's consultant of 770 parts per billion at another spot along the riverside containment wall. That's more than twice the surface-water standard. A reading of 476 was found in the same area by Hill's consultant.
Test results also found groundwater readings up to 18 times higher than the maximum contaminant level for drinking water in two test wells on SCE&G's property.
Hill, one of the area's major landowners, said the results are disturbing to him. He farms about 3,000 acres and uses groundwater to irrigate his crops, which include corn and soybeans. In addition to groundwater pollution concerns, arsenic in the river is nothing to ignore, he said.
"People commercial-fish in that river and eat fish out of that river," he said. "And that's a major concern - contaminating the river."
Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.