Lawyers detail SCE&G water pollution

Farmer fighting utility's proposed power plant landfill he says would pollute his Richland land, Wateree River

sfretwell@thestate.comOctober 7, 2009 

Water pollution by SCE&G - and a state agency's efforts to stop it - came under scrutiny Tuesday in a legal case that will decide whether the power company can build a mega-landfill along the Wateree River in lower Richland County.

Lower Richland farmer Heath Hill says in his legal appeal that the landfill could pollute drinking and irrigation wells he relies on, contaminate fish in the Wateree River, and lower property values in rural lower Richland.

Federal officials also have expressed concern because the landfill would be several miles upstream from Congaree National Park.

SCE&G knew in the mid-1990s that arsenic, a poison that can cause cancer, had seeped into the Wateree River from a coal waste pond it operates near its U.S. 601 electricity generation plant, Hill's lawyers argued Tuesday.

The company also knew the coal waste pond was polluting ground water, Judge Carolyn Matthews was told.

Nevertheless, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control last year approved SCE&G's proposed 17-story landfill, while also allowing a pollution discharge permit to the Wateree River, Hill's attorneys said. Hill is appealing the permits.

DHEC's approval will allow the landfill to send more polluted water to a coal waste pond that already is leaking illegally high levels of arsenic, Hill's attorneys James Smith and Bob Guild said. The pond now is a repository for arsenic-laced ash, which is produced in making electricity.

"This is a system that is designed to fail," Smith, who is also a state representative, told the judge. "If you were to award this permit, the second after it's granted, they'll be in violation" of state water quality rules.

Hill, who owns several thousand acres near the landfill site in Lower Richland, testified his son moved off the family land because of concerns about SCE&G's plans. A ditch from the company's property crosses under U.S. 601 and onto Hill's land. Arsenic has been found in the soil of the ditch on both sides of the road.

"If they're going to build that landfill, I had to get him out of there," Hill testified Tuesday. "That's my son."

Attorneys for SCE&G grilled the farmer about his use of pesticides that contain arsenic and about his plans to try to attract industry to the area.

SCE&G's lawyer Beth Partlow and company spokesman Robert Yanity were hesitant to comment after Tuesday's hearing. But Yanity said the company has complied with state and federal regulations, as well as a 2001 agreement with DHEC to try to limit discharges. The case continues today.

"I really think a lot of the facts are going to come out when we get our folks on the stand," Yanity said. "We feel like we are certainly meeting all requirements."

Partlow and DHEC lawyer Stephen Hightower spent much of Tuesday sparring with Smith and Guild over which testimony and documents would be allowed in court. They sought to limit the expert testimony of a Clemson University environmental professor and to limit discussion of the 2001 deal between DHEC and SCE&G.

Rather than fine SCE&G over the arsenic pollution, DHEC in 2001 signed an agreement allowing the power company to continue to exceed a federal safe drinking water limit for arsenic found in the mid-90s, records show.

The federal limit is 10 parts per billion, but SCE&G can continue to allow ground water beneath the coal pond to reach 3,000 parts per billion, the agreement says. In return, SCE&G must work to limit the arsenic source.

The leaks also have eaten two holes in a containment wall that is supposed to prevent pollution from reaching the Wateree River. Last month, consultants for both the power company and Hill found the leaking water is full of arsenic and was draining to the Wateree River.

Guild said after the hearing that the level of arsenic found last month is comparable to that found in the mid-1990s, showing little cleanup progress has been made. Seepage through the pond's containment wall toward the river is particularly troubling, he said.

SCE&G's landfill would take residue from new air pollution control equipment being installed at its Wateree power station. But toxic residues from the process - including arsenic - must be put somewhere, and the company says it needs a landfill for the waste.

SCE&G is the prime subsidiary of SCANA, a $10 billion Fortune 500 company. The power company, headquartered in the Columbia area, has 652,000 retail and wholesale customers.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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