South Carolina’s state-owned electrical utility plans to clean up 11 million tons of contaminated coal ash from three power plants and close most of its remaining coal waste ponds in a decision that’s expected to reduce the threat of pollution leaking into rivers and groundwater.
Santee Cooper’s decision, announced the same day it settled two major lawsuits with environmental groups, comes at a time of rising criticism nationally and regionally about the impact coal-fired power plants have on the environment. Not only are greenhouse gases from coal plants major contributors to climate change, but unlined waste ponds often contain toxic materials, such as arsenic, that seep into the water table or ooze into rivers.
Tuesday’s decision is of particular significance in South Carolina because it marks a change in position by Santee Cooper on the future of its coastal-plain ash ponds. The company had been hesitant to embrace a full-scale cleanup of the ponds. In at least one instance, Santee Cooper spent time and money in court fighting environmentalists over how to contain coal ash pollution along the scenic Waccamaw River west of Myrtle Beach.
Now, all of the company’s remaining fly ash ponds will be cleaned out and closed over the next 10 to 15 years, with the material being sent to landfills for burial or for recycling into cement or other “beneficial use” products, the company said Tuesday. Some of the material will be recycled at a new $40 million plant announced Tuesday for Georgetown County.
The Santee Cooper cleanup will occur at the Winyah plant in Georgetown, the Grainger plant in Conway and the Jefferies plant outside Moncks Corner. The latter two coal plants already are closed.
Collectively, the three plants had seven ash waste ponds, company spokeswoman Mollie Gore said. With the closures in Horry, Georgetown and Berkeley counties, Gore said she knows of only one ash waste pond that will remain open. But that lagoon is at another power plant, does not contain fly ash and does not have the same contamination issues, she said.
R.M. Singletary, executive vice president of corporate services at the power company, said the company’s decision will be cost effective and allay concerns over the “long-term placement of the ash.” He said the plan to clean out the ponds “does so in a manner that is responsible to customers. It’s a solution that really does have something favorable for all involved.”
Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Santee Cooper has gotten the message that it needs to address its coal ash problem. Holleman’s group dug up records showing substantial groundwater contamination at Santee Cooper’s Grainger plant, a 1960s-era coal plant the company recently agreed to close.
“This is probably the biggest victory for clean water in South Carolina in years, and perhaps the biggest victory for remediation of industrial contamination,” Holleman said. “Santee Cooper has now agreed to remove 1.3 million tons of arsenic contaminated coal ash from Conway ... and to remove contaminated ash from two other sites. In the past, it has insisted that it was safe to leave coal ash in place, and their plan was to leave it forever.”
Holleman’s organization sued Santee Cooper last year on behalf of environmental groups, including the Waccamaw Riverkeeper organization, the southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.
Tuesday’s announcement by Santee Cooper follows last year’s settlement between the law center and SCE&G, South Carolina’s other major-coal generating power producer. In that case, SCE&G agreed to clean up 2 million tons of coal sludge from its power plant along the Wateree River southeast of Columbia. Regionally, the Southern Environmental Law Center has been at the forefront of the coal ash fight, but remains mired in legal disputes with Duke Power over proposed cleanups in North Carolina.
In Santee Cooper’s case, the company agreed Tuesday to settle suits that sought to force the cleanup of coal ash at the Grainger station along the Waccamaw River. The company originally had intended to leave the material on site and cap it in an effort to prevent future leaks into the river or groundwater. Holleman’s organization filed citizens suits last year in state and federal court, seeking to force a cleanup at the Conway plant.
Under the settlement, Santee Cooper has 10 years to remove ash from the Conway site. It also must dig out a foot of soil beneath the ash waste lagoons. The settlement does not require Santee Cooper to clean up groundwater already contaminated by leaking ponds, but removing the ash reduces a continuing threat, environmentalists said. The settlement also requires action if arsenic levels in groundwater do not decline over time.
“This settlement provides for the protection of our beautiful black water Waccamaw River,” said Christine Ellis, the Waccamaw riverkeeper. “We are grateful to Santee Cooper for agreeing to remove its toxic coal ash and helping us to achieve our goal of fishable, swimmable and drinkable water for our families and our future.”
Holleman said he believes the lawsuit involving the Conway coal plant forced Santee Cooper to commit to cleanups at the Georgetown and Moncks Corner-area facilities. A judge’s ruling that allowed the Conway suit to move ahead also threatened to involve the other plants, Holleman said. Gore did not confirm that.
Santee Cooper is South Carolina’s largest power producer, providing electricity that serves about 2 million people, or nearly half the state’s population. The company has in recent years announced plans to close two of its four coal-powered electrical generating stations as federal regulation of the coal industry tightens.
South Carolina’s legacy of relying on waste ponds to dispose of coal ash isn’t unique and has been a concern for years among environmental groups. But safety questions were heightened nationally five years ago. That’s when a dam wall broke at an ash pond in Kingston, Tenn., spilling massive volumes of toxic, watery coal ash across a community and into adjacent rivers. The catastrophe forced the relocation of a neighborhood. The cleanup is continuing.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering regulations to more tightly regulate coal ash waste. At one point three years ago, South Carolina had about 20 coal ash dump sites, but that number has been cut sharply as a result of actions by Santee Cooper and SCE&G.