A flood of people upset about arsenic pollution in Lower Richland County blasted state regulators Tuesday night for loosening controls over the poisonous material at the request of the Columbia area’s biggest power company.
Instead of dropping arsenic limits for SCE&G’s wastewater discharges, state regulators should strengthen limits at the company’s coal-fired power station near Congaree National Park in Lower Richland, many said during a hearing.
More than 100 people packed an elementary school cafeteria in Eastover, and virtually every speaker criticized the Department of Health and Environmental Control plan. The hearing was punctuated by loud applause each time someone spoke against DHEC’s plan.
“It’s ludicrous. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or throw up,” Richland County resident David Shelley said.Since the 1990s, SCE&G has polluted groundwater with arsenic and allowed arsenic-riddled seepage to drain from coal ash ponds at its power plant into the Wateree River nearby, records show.
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At the power company’s request, DHEC has proposed eliminating arsenic limits in the company’s discharge permit to the Wateree. It will require quarterly monitoring. The company needs a pollution discharge permit to accept coal waste from the power plant, as well as a stream of wastewater from a new landfill at the site.
Agency officials said they’ve determined that any arsenic that does get into the Wateree River is in such small amounts, it will be diluted and won’t have much impact on water quality. They said the arsenic limits they are dropping had only been in the company’s discharge permit since 2008. SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said the company works hard to minimize environmental impacts from its U.S. 601 coal-fired power plant.
But few at Tuesday’s hearing were satisfied.
Among those were Tracy Swartout, superintendent of Congaree National Park. She urged DHEC to reconsider its plan to drop arsenic limits. The agency should at least require more frequent monitoring to protect the park downstream, she said.
“Limits that are deemed safe change with the time; toxicity doesn’t,” Swartout said, noting that contaminants could collect in the vast flood plain that defines the state’s only national park.
“Reductions or elimination of limits on arsenic could endanger the resources of the park, and the public who fish in the Wateree.”
People have until March 19 to comment before DHEC makes a final decision on dropping the arsenic limits.
Arsenic is a poisonous, naturally occurring element that also is created by industrial practices, such as burning coal to make electricity. 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 cancer.
Others urging DHEC to keep arsenic controls for SCE&G included state Democratic Reps. James Smith and Joe Neal of Richland County, as well as representatives of the Sierra Club and the Catawba Riverkeeper.
“I think that there’s some kind of group stupid going on’’ at DHEC, the Sierra Club’s Susan Corbett said of the agency’s decision. She said DHEC could be renamed “Department of Hindering Environmental Cleanup.’’““I just don’t get it.’’
Neal said Lower Richland has already suffered from other polluting industrial practices, and now faces more from arsenic. He took DHEC to task for in the past failing to protect part of the area’s drinking water from lead.
DHEC dropped arsenic limits in the discharge permit for SCE&G after supporting rules to ease controls over the poisonous material two years ago. In effect, regulators are saying that since South Carolina has an easier standard than it once did for arsenic, SCE&G doesn’t need a limit on arsenic.
Smith showed a video from last fall of consultants sampling arsenic-polluted groundwater seeping out of a bank from an SCE&G coal pond. The water was draining into the Wateree River. Smith commissioned the video during a court case against a landfill permit for SCE&G.
Since Smith’s case last fall, David Merryman, the Catawba riverkeeper, said he has seen even wider flows of water seeping out of an embankment next to a SCE&G coal ash pond.
SCE&G is putting on air pollution control equipment that will produce waste. That waste will be dumped in a new landfill. Polluted water that collects in the landfill will be pumped to the coal ash ponds that ultimately discharge to the Wateree River.