An environmental group made good Monday on its threat to sue Santee Cooper for years of arsenic contamination at the state-owned utility’s coal-fired power plant west of Myrtle Beach.
In a federal lawsuit, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper says Santee Cooper and state environmental regulators knew for more than a decade that arsenic was seeping from the Grainger power plant and into groundwater that flows to the river.
But the suit says the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have failed to enforce pollution laws.
The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center, asks a federal court to require that Santee Cooper remove toxic coal ash from waste ponds at the 47-year-old Grainger power plant and clean up contaminated groundwater to protect the Waccamaw River in the future.
“We are hoping this federal proceeding will help convince Santee Cooper to remove the ash and help convince DHEC to require that it be removed,” said Frank Holleman, a Greenville attorney who is with the law center. “DHEC has not taken any action, so we are seeking to enforce the law.”
The lawsuit is unusual because it was filed under a section of the federal Clean Water Act. That law allows citizens to sue for enforcement of environmental rules if they think regulators have fallen down on the job.
Some similar suits have been filed in South Carolina through the years, but they are not common, said Waccamaw Riverkeeper attorney Holleman. The Clean Water Act suit also is believed to be the first in years involving coal ash pollution in the Southeast, he said.
In the Santee Cooper case, regulators have known that unsafe levels of arsenic polluted the groundwater, in some cases by hundreds of times, the suit said. The riverkeeper group issued notice in February that it would sue if enforcement of pollution law violations did not begin with in 60 days.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said it would cost $90 million to dig up coal ash and haul it away from the Grainger site. That’s more than twice the cost of the company’s plan to contain the coal ash at the site. The plan is to install cement-fortified walls and cap areas of concern, she said. DHEC is examining the company’s plan, which was submitted March 18.
“We chose a plan that meets all the criteria that is protective of public health and the environment,’’ Gore said. “It meets regulatory requirements. It is sustainable. It is proven technology and sound engineering. And it is cost effective. All other things being equal, costs matter.’’
DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said has agency had no comment on the suit but is working to make sure the coal plant site is properly closed. Santee Cooper’s closure plan is under agency review. A hearing was held last week in Horry County in which many people said they did not want the coal ash to remain near the river.
The federal lawsuit is the second against Santee Cooper over its Grainger power station. A state suit was filed last year, seeking a cleanup at the site.
The Waccamaw, which extends from the North Carolina line to Georgetown, is a scenic blackwater river and drinking water source that also is under review for federal designation as a national river trail. Arsenic is a toxic metal used as a poison in ancient times that can sicken people who are exposed to elevated levels.
Coal ash ponds have drawn scrutiny nationally and in South Carolina because of the damage they can cause to waterways if dams break or pollutants leak out. In the Columbia-area, SCE&G has settled a different type of lawsuit by environmentalists and plans to clean up a power plant site on the Wateree River in Lower Richland.