Levels of a toxic pollutant are dropping in groundwater near the Wateree River as SCE&G continues to clean up coal ash, the messy by-product of making electricity in eastern Richland County.
Recent groundwater testing shows sharp declines in arsenic levels at several spots on the company’s Wateree power plant site, according to a report SCE&G prepared for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control last month.
Both SCE&G and an environmental group that once sued the company said Monday that water quality improvements are the result of the waste pond cleanup effort.
“We are on the way to getting out of the woods,’’ said Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, which sued on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation to force the cleanup. “This is significant because these ash lagoons were right on the Wateree River upstream from Congaree National Park.’’
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Since settling the lawsuit with the center in 2012, SCE&G has removed 876,000 tons of coal ash from waste lagoons on the property. All told, the company’s plan is to dig out more than 2 million tons of ash. It has developed a lined landfill in Lower Richland for waste ash generated at the coal-fired power plant.
Coal ash includes toxins, such as arsenic and metals, that can leak through the bottom of unlined ash lagoons and into groundwater. Arsenic is a poisonous material that can sicken people and wildlife exposed in sufficient amounts.
SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower said the ash removal efforts “have had a positive impact on groundwater.’’
According to test results analyzed by Holleman’s organization, arsenic levels have dropped more than 90 percent at two test wells that once registered some of the highest readings beneath the ash ponds.
SCE&G’s 46-year-old Wateree coal plant has been the subject of multiple lawsuits over coal ash dumped at the site and groundwater contamination beneath ash waste ponds. Details of the groundwater pollution came out as part of a 2009 lawsuit, brought by a Lower Richland farmer who had challenged the company’s future disposal plans. Evidence produced for the trial showed arsenic had polluted groundwater at levels above the safe drinking water standard, but the contaminant also was draining through an earthen ash pond wall toward the Wateree River.
In 2012, the Southern Environmental Law Center sued to force the cleanup of the ash ponds. The law center has filed legal action across the Carolinas, seeking to force power companies to dig up coal ash from ponds and truck it to lined landfills. SCE&G, Santee Cooper and Duke Energy have agreed to do so in South Carolina, but the law center remains at odds with Duke over ash cleanup plans at some power plants in North Carolina.
Robert Yanity, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, had no immediate comment Monday on the groundwater test results.