Frank Holleman never thought he’d become a nationally recognized authority on coal ash, a toxin-riddled waste that has power companies under scrutiny across the country.
But five years after taking a job with a regional conservation group, Holleman is perhaps the one person utilities hate to see coming.
He’s sued Duke Energy, Santee Cooper and SCE&G, successfully brokering agreements to clean out coal ash waste ponds along South Carolina rivers. He’s sought legislative help in allowing citizens the right to sue companies that pollute rivers with coal ash waste.
And in his job as an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, he continues to battle Duke Energy in North Carolina over its ash disposal basins.
A Greenville resident with a folksy Upstate twang, Holleman has appeared on the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes, been quoted in The New York Times and testified before Congress — all as part of an effort to change the way utilities dispose of coal ash.
After he spoke to a Congressional committee last spring in Washington, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, called him “the best witness that I have ever had on my side of an issue.’’
For his efforts, Holleman was recognized Wednesday by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina at its annual Green Tie awards luncheon in Columbia.
Lisa Evans, a New England attorney involved in the national coal ash fight since 2000, said Holleman has been a major ally for environmental groups since he joined the effort. Holleman’s way of making the coal ash issue understandable to the average person has been invaluable, she said.
Waste ash, the byproduct of burning coal to make electricity, has been dumped by utilities in unlined lagoons, many of which have leaked pollutants into groundwater and rivers. Critics want the material dug up and put in lined landfills, away from waterways.
“He has a silver tongue and he’s always courteous – he’s quite the southern gentleman,’’ said Evans, who is with the environmental group Earthjustice. “Instead of quoting a bunch of statistics that anybody can memorize, he knows what is happening on the ground, effectively describes the problem, and can make people understand the threat.’’
Holleman, a 62-year-old grandfather with a Harvard Law School degree, said the warm feelings by conservationists aren’t shared by some of the power companies he tangles with — particularly Duke Energy. But he’s glad the efforts are resulting in coal ash cleanups.
“I think they probably do not like me at all,’’ Holleman said. “We have sued them and forced them to change their behavior in ways they didn’t want to do.’’
Southern Environmental Law Center board member Charles Patrick, a classmate of Holleman’s at Furman University in the 1970s, said his old friend worries Duke.
“Frank strikes fear in the hearts of Duke Energy,’’ he told the 450 people attending Wednesday’s awards luncheon.
Duke had little to say when asked about Holleman.
“Given where we are with Mr. Holleman and SELC and being involved in a number of active cases, we will pass on offering a comment,’’ Duke spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said.
Since going to work at the law center in 2011, Holleman has been one of Duke Energy’s chief critics, a kind of legal terrier nipping at the utility giant over coal ash disposal plans. Faced with lengthy and expensive lawsuits from Holleman in South Carolina, Duke has agreed to clean out ash ponds in Anderson and Darlington counties. In North Carolina, Duke has resisted the law center’s push for the company to clean out all of its coal ash basins, although it plans to dig out many of them.
Holleman said he didn’t expect to learn so much about coal ash after he took a job with the law center.
“I had heard of the coal ash issue, but never anticipated working on it like this,’ Holleman said, explaining how the the ash debate has intensified in the past five years.
Holleman, whose grandfather was mayor of Walhalla, grew up in the Oconee County town of Seneca, not far from the southern Appalachian Mountains. He developed an interest in conservation as a young boy while roaming the woods and hillsides near Seneca.
That passion always burned inside and he became involved in conservation issues as an adult. He often volunteered to serve on boards, such as the Naturaland Trust, and joined other efforts to save property. In 2007, he helped lead the fight to protect Isaqueena Falls and the land around historic Stumphouse Mountain before a Florida developer could build in the area near Walhalla.
“It would have been a catastrophe’’ if the land had not been protected, he said.
After graduating from Furman University and Harvard, Holleman began a career in legal work and later public education. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, worked in private law practice with the Wyche firm in Greenville, served as a deputy assistant U.S. Attorney General, and served as a deputy U.S. Secretary of Education under President Bill Clinton.
Holleman also ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for state education superintendent in 2010.
It wasn’t long after his defeat that Holleman learned about a job opening at the Southern Environmental Law Center. He interviewed for the lawyer’s post and was hired in 2011.
Although the career shift occurred when most people his age are thinking about retirement — he was 57 — Holleman said working full-time as an environmental lawyer resulted from his long-time interest in conservation and public service. In mid-life, Holleman said his interest in conservation had gotten “deeper and deeper.’’
One of his first cases with the law center was representing citizens in Colleton County against a landfill that would hold coal ash. Through his research, Holleman also learned more about coal waste disposal practices — particularly how utilities had for decades dumped the polluted material in unlined waste ponds. Many of the ponds were near rivers and were leaking contaminants such as arsenic, he said.
Not only has the law center sued Duke to force the clean out of ash basins, but federal officials launched a criminal investigation that ultimately wound up with the company pleading guilty to nine violations. The company agreed to pay $102 million as a result of the case.
His efforts in North Carolina have occurred at about the same time the law center sued SCE&G and Santee Cooper in South Carolina over coal ash basins. Both companies eventually settled with the law center, and today, are removing tons of coal ash from pits at coal plants along the Wateree River in Richland County and the Waccamaw River in Horry County.
Holleman said he’s glad the way things are working out.
“Anytime you can do something for conservation, that’s a good day,’’ he said.
Green Tie Luncheon
The Green Tie awards luncheon is an annual fundraiser by the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. The group supports conservation-minded candidates and lobbies the Legislature for bills considered favorable to the environment.
This year’s luncheon, held at 701 Whaley in Columbia, drew about 450 people and raised about $50,000. Among those attending were at least 50 politicians, as well as business leaders, environmentalists and farmers. .
In addition to Holleman, another honoree at Wednesday’s luncheon was naturalist Rudy Mancke, the one-time host of the television program “NatureScene” and an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina.
“If you give people an understanding of the natural world, then they are going to appreciate it more -- and then you’re not going to have to beat them in the head to conserve things,’’ Mancke said. “Conservation then comes naturally.’’
Sen. Nikki Setzler, D-Lexington; Rep. Weston Newton, R-Beaufort; and Rep. Doug Brannon, R-Spartanburg also received awards for their support of conservation issues in the General Assembly.
Those attending Wednesday’s luncheon included Republican Attorney General Alan Wilson; S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control chief Catherine Heigel; lowcountry attorney and former coastal study panel member Terry Richardson; Upstate Forever founder Brad Wyche; Aiken County conservationist Doug Busbee; and Haile Gold Mine executive Mick Wilkes