COLUMBIA, SC — Two South Carolina agencies that for years have been aware of arsenic leaks along a coastal river face time in court over what environmentalists say is a failure to clean up the toxic mess from Santee Cooper’s coal-burning power plant.
The Southern Environmental Law Center sent Santee Cooper a notice Thursday that it will sue the power company for violation of the federal Clean Water Act if utility officials don’t agree in the next 60 days to cleanse the site and stop arsenic from leaking into the Waccamaw River west of Myrtle Beach.
Thursday’s letter not only questions the way Santee Cooper has managed coal ash at its Grainger power plant, but also why the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control never took action against the state utility – despite long-standing knowledge of arsenic in groundwater.
For at least 18 years, both Santee Cooper and DHEC have known about “extremely high and increasing levels of arsenic contamination in the groundwater,” the letter said. But DHEC didn’t fine Santee Cooper or force the power company to clean up, according to the law center.
“The DHEC staff did the right thing in finding a legal violation, but the leadership at DHEC ... did not require a modern cleanup at the facility and has never taken enforcement action to clean up what the agency acknowledges is illegal pollution,” said Frank Holleman, a law center attorney handling the case.
Holleman said DHEC’s failure to oversee the Grainger plant span both past and current administrations at the agency, which has been criticized by environmentalists as going too easy on polluting industries. He noted that DHEC, which last year acknowledged a backlog of about 500 expired operating permits, also let the Santee Cooper permit expire in 2006 and has not issued a new one with tougher pollution-control standards.
If a suit is filed, Santee Cooper would be the defendant, but DHEC staff members might have to testify under oath why they did not fine the power company or require a cleanup. Arsenic levels 70 to 90 times the current legal limit of 10 parts per billion have been found beneath the Grainger plant, the letter says.
The letter also was sent to DHEC and to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which delegates permitting and enforcement authority in South Carolina to DHEC. Under the federal Clean Water Act, citizens can sue to enforce the law if the government does not. But they first must file a 60-day notice letter in an attempt to resolve enforcement questions. Environmentalists contend the law has not been enforced in this case.
DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden had no immediate comment Thursday.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the coal plant has not polluted the Waccamaw River. Gore also emphasized that, even though some arsenic has seeped into groundwater on the plant site, the area around the plant receives public water so no one’s drinking water is in jeopardy. She said Santee Cooper will file by mid-March a detailed plan on how it will close the two Grainger ash ponds. She also said the company is in compliance with its environmental permits.
Gore noted that Santee Cooper had been attempting to work with environmentalists, but various legal actions involving the agency have gotten in the way.
“They chose to move the discussion to the courthouse,’’ she said. “This is disruptive to a process that was already under way through the appropriate regulatory avenues.’’
Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, said the allegations in the letter to Santee Cooper reflect poorly on two state agencies that are supposed to follow the law. Smith, a Columbia attorney, said he wants to learn more about the actions of Santee Cooper and DHEC on the coast. A lawsuit he handled several years ago revealed similar concerns about leaks to the Wateree River from a power plant in lower Richland County.
“This is a state-owned utility polluting and in significant violation, and a state institution that is supposed to police and enforce” the law, Smith said. “There appears to be a failure on behalf of both state institutions.”
More than a dozen toxic pollutants have shown up in groundwater at the Horry County power plant, but arsenic is of particular concern, the letter said. Arsenic, a poison once used by Romans to kill political enemies, is produced by burning coal and has been used as a pesticide on farm fields. 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. People are often exposed to arsenic through drinking water or eating food tainted by the material.
The 60-day legal notice, filed on behalf of the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, is the latest in a series of actions against Santee Cooper over leaks of arsenic to groundwater beneath the power plant. The law center, which handles cases for environmental groups, also has sued Santee Cooper and DHEC in state court over the coal ash issue at Grainger.
Environmentalists want Santee Cooper to remove tons of coal ash and clean up polluted groundwater as it closes the aging power plant. The utility has shut down the 1960s-era Grainger plant. As part of the closure operation, it plans to drain one of two coal waste ponds and place a cap over the other – without removing the poisonous coal ash, the law center’s letter said. Gore disputed that, saying no plan has been filed.
If the ash is not removed, the law center says the waste will present a continuing threat to groundwater and the Waccamaw River. The plant’s coal waste ponds have leaked arsenic to groundwater, which seeps into the river, the letter says.
Santee Cooper’s legal battles aren’t unique, but the agency’s decision to fight the lawsuits is a different tactic than another prominent South Carolina power company, SCE&G.
The Southern Environmental Law Center sued SCE&G in 2012 for virtually the same thing – years of arsenic leaks to groundwater at its lower Richland County coal plant. But SCE&G later agreed to settle the suit and clean up the toxic ash.
Leaks from coal ash ponds are part of a national concern. The EPA is considering whether to crack down on coal ash. A massive spill in Tennessee several years ago increased scrutiny on the practice of dumping waste coal ash into ponds, which serve as disposal sites.
The Waccamaw River is a blackwater stream widely used by anglers and boaters. It flows through Conway and south to Georgetown, where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. A national wildlife refuge is along its banks, as well as a trail for kayakers along the river. Drinking water intakes are also downstream from the Grainger plant.