COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina’s chief environmental regulator said Thursday that Duke Energy should take extra steps to protect the landscape when the company closes two polluted coal ash ponds in the Upstate.
The state can’t force Duke to remove contaminated ash from waste ponds at the Lee power plant near Anderson, but the company should “go above and beyond” in shutting down the lagoons along the Saluda River, said Catherine Templeton, director at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Those extra steps could include removing coal ash from the ponds, Templeton said. Templeton said the company also could handle the ash in other ways, including using liners at the site, although the specific plan still has not been put together.
“I would encourage the disposal of wet ash,” Templeton said in a Thursday interview with The State newspaper. “We encourage everybody to go the extra mile.”
Templeton made her comments amid increasing questions about the long-term safety of the company’s ash ponds in South Carolina, which until recently, had received little scrutiny as Duke struggles with a federal investigation and how to manage polluted ash ponds in North Carolina. The company’s troubles in North Carolina have drawn national attention.
Critics say ash should be cleaned from the ponds at Duke sites across the Carolinas to prevent the threat of groundwater pollution or an ash spill into rivers. Duke has not said yet if it will clean out all of the ash.
Ash dumped in the ponds is the toxic byproduct of burning coal to make electricity. The waste material is riddled with nasty pollutants, including arsenic and chromium, that can threaten public health.
Duke is the only major utility in South Carolina not to agree to clean coal ash from waste ponds. Santee Cooper in eastern South Carolina and SCE&G, which serves the Columbia and Charleston areas, agreed to dig up the ash and haul it to a landfill or to recycle the material. They did so after being sued by environmentalists.
“So many different laws do not classify coal ash as something that has to be moved,” Templeton said. “But if (Duke) does what Santee Cooper did, it is good corporate citizenship. If they don’t, it is not illegal.”
Environmental lawyer Frank Holleman said he thinks DHEC can require removal of the ash under the law. But he said Templeton’s statements are encouraging.
“It is a very good thing and a strong statement from the director of DHEC that Duke should address the Lee site and go above and beyond,” said Holleman, a Greenville resident who is with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Consultants to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have questioned why water has seeped for 24 years from a coal ash dam at the 63-year-old power plant along the Anderson-Greenville county line, The State reported in February. DHEC hit Duke with a notice of violation in February over what it says was a company failure to report the conditions of the ponds. When dams fail, coal ash can kill aquatic life in rivers and ruin drinking water for communities that rely on surface water. The Saluda begins in the mountains and ends in Columbia.
For now, Templeton said the site does not present an “imminent threat” to the environment.
“When I say ‘imminent threat,’ I mean when you look at the dams, you don’t feel like you better get out of the way,” Templeton said. But “it is important to look at them. Because this is getting so much attention, the dams are probably safer now than before. They are going to get fortified or changed.”
Since February, DHEC has met with Duke, inspected the Anderson County site and recently urged the company to explain more about the future of the coal ash ponds. On Feb. 27, DHEC sent Duke a notice of violation over how the company has overseen ash ponds at the site. The notice said Duke had not submitted annual monitoring reports on its coal ash basins for 2011, 2012 and 2013 as required by law. The company sent them in 2014. A notice of violation can lead to DHEC fines.
A Feb. 24 DHEC visit to the site found trees and “other deleterious vegetation” growing near an area of seeping water from an earthen dam wall at one coal ash basin along the Saluda River. The agency ordered the vegetation removed. Material growing in earthen dams can weaken them, making the structures more vulnerable to failure. The ash ponds are just uphill from the Saluda.