Few things have unified the people of Liberty like the prospect of seeing coal ash brought to their community by an out-of-state waste company.
The company wants to haul potentially tons of ash to a new landfill in the hilly area of northwest South Carolina. At a crowded public meeting Thursday in Pickens County, resident after resident ripped the proposal.
“It was clear to me that nobody, from all walks of life, wants that coal ash,’’ state Sen. Larry Martin said after the meeting.
The plan by MRR Pickens is the latest chapter in an emerging national dilemma: what to do with coal ash that’s being excavated from contaminated power plant sites.
Utilities are trying to clean out toxin-leaking waste ponds and are looking for places to dispose of the coal ash – but that sometimes means trucking ash across state lines and into communities that don’t want it.
Communities in a number of states, including Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, have balked at the prospect of allowing coal ash to be dumped in local landfills. In South Carolina, some lawmakers and environmentalists said existing or new landfill sites could be targeted for coal ash disposal by out-of-state power companies.
“Nobody wants this stuff,’’ said Amelia Shenstone, campaigns director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in Atlanta.
Shenstone, whose group has been critical of using coal to make power, said the issue is a difficult one because power companies legitimately need to dig coal ash from waste basins and put the material in lined landfills.
Ash in the basins, used for decades as disposal sites for coal-fired power plants, has polluted groundwater and rivers across the country with toxins, such as arsenic and mercury. But not every utility has the space for modern, lined landfills on its property to accept coal ash that is excavated from the basins, said environmentalists and Duke Energy officials.
“In an ideal situation, you would have a way to store it safely on the utilities’ property,’’ Shenstone said. “That’s happened in some places, but it depends on the area and how much property they have.’’
Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel for Earthjustice, a national environmental group, said power companies’ interest in sending coal ash to off-site landfills wasn’t envisioned when the federal government tightened ash rules last year. The thrust of the new regulations was to force the closure of ash ponds.
“At many of our sites, an on-site landfill is just not an option,’’ Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks said. “You might have a flood plain, or it might be they don’t have enough footprint to do that. But at the sites where we do have an on-site landfill potential, we are exploring those options.’’
Brooks said Duke has sent some coal ash from power plants in North Carolina to landfills in Georgia and Virginia. Some of the waste going from a coal plant site on North Carolina’s Dan River is being sent to a Virginia landfill, he said. The Dan River pond spilled coal ash into the river about two years ago.
He wasn’t aware of any opposition at the Georgia or Virginia landfill sites, but Brooks said citizens in one area of North Carolina have questioned plans to put some company waste ash in an old clay mine.
Unlike their counterparts in some states, South Carolina power companies SCE&G and Santee Cooper have agreed to dig up all of the ash from waste ponds and either use their own landfills or recycle the material. Duke has similar plans in South Carolina, although one site owned by Duke in Anderson County is sending ash to Georgia for disposal.
That, however, doesn’t prevent power companies from outside South Carolina from attempting to bring coal ash here for disposal in landfills, conservationists say.
The issue in Pickens County erupted late last year after it was revealed that MRR Pickens, a division of Raleigh waste company MRR Southern, wanted to haul potentially thousands of tons of coal ash to a new landfill. The landfill was first proposed about 10 years ago to handle relatively harmless construction waste, county and state officials say.
Residents said they were led to believe the dump would only be used for disposal of construction waste, such as bricks and concrete. Pickens County, which at first welcomed MRR, later revoked authorizations to develop the coal ash landfill.
People say they are are concerned about the toxic effects of coal ash on groundwater and creeks.
MRR hasn’t said where the coal ash would come from. Martin said he’s been told it will be from another state. But the company has said it was being treated unfairly by Pickens County. Last month, MRR Pickens sued the county and individual members of the Pickens planning commission, seeking compensation for damages.
Company officials were not available for comment Friday.
Brooks said Duke had examined the Pickens County site, but because the landfill hasn’t been developed, it is not an option.
Some in South Carolina oppose importing coal ash because the state has a legacy of accepting waste from across the country, ranging from nuclear garbage to hazardous industrial refuse and medical trash.
“I’m worried that the MRR landfill is the tip of the iceberg,’’ said Shelley Robbins, who tracks waste disposal issues for Upstate Forever. “I want to do whatever we can do legally to make it difficult for the Northeast to say, ‘Ooh, let’s just truck it down there to South Carolina,’”
Martin, R-Pickens, said that if coal ash does come here from other states, it should be dumped in safer spots than the landfill proposed for Pickens County. Environmentalists say construction and demolition landfills, such as the one near Liberty, are not sophisticated enough to contain pollutants in coal ash, even though state regulators say they are.
Under federal commerce laws, the state can’t ban out-of-state waste. But bills introduced by Martin and Rep. Davy Hiott, R-Pickens, would prevent most coal ash from being dumped in landfills designated for construction waste. South Carolina has more than 60 of those disposal areas, officially referred to as commercial Class 2 landfills but commonly known as construction and demolition landfills.
“It’s a no-brainer for any county that, if it’s going to be done, it’s done right,’’ said Martin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The House has passed Hiott’s coal ash bill and the Senate is considering the one Martin introduced. He predicted the bill will pass.
The Department of Health and Environmental Control says the Pickens County dump will be designed to adequately protect the environment. DHEC required a liner for the landfill proposed by MRR near Liberty. A 2015 federal law also requires new coal ash landfills to be lined.
“A synthetic liner is more environmentally protective,’’ agency spokeswoman Cassandra Harris said in an email Friday night. Harris said DHEC has not given final approval to using the Liberty site for coal ash. The company still must demonstrate that the coal ash to be deposited there meets state criteria, she said.
DHEC acknowledged late Friday that 12 Class 2 landfills already are taking ash, only three of which have liners. All 12 are noncommercial, on-site landfills, Harris said in an email. The email did not provide further details or explain whether DHEC expects more landfills like the one in Pickens County to be proposed.
“We cannot speculate on what may happen in the future,’’ the email from Harris said.
Robbins said the federal law isn’t set up for strict enforcement to ensure that liners always go into landfills. At the same time, there is no guarantee DHEC will impose tight restrictions on ash landfills in the future without a change in state law, said Robbins and Frank Holleman, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.
Alabama coal dump
Folks like Ben Eaton, who lives in Uniontown, Ala., say they wish they had better protections when local officials touted the benefits of a regional trash landfill. As it turned out, the site became a big coal ash dump.
About 4 million tons of coal ash now fills the dump in central Alabama, he said. Much of it came from Kingston, Tenn., site of a massive coal ash spill in 2008. The spill fouled rivers near Kingston, which is near Chattanooga, prompting an environmental cleanup.
“We were sort of pushed under the bus,’’ Eaton said. He said his group has shared its experience with people in Texas who also have opposed a coal ash landfill there.
People in Wayne County, Ga., are in an uproar this year over plans to send rail cars of coal ash to a municipal landfill in the area. Republic Services, one of the nation’s leading waste disposal companies, wants to ship tons of coal ash to the area near Jesup in south Georgia, according to media reports.
“I don’t want to become the dump site of the whole East Coast,’’ Wayne County Commissioner Ralph Hickox said in a story last month by the Florida Times-Union.
For now, the Pickens County landfill dispute remains unresolved. But local officials hope the MRR plan can be stopped. Rep. Hiott told The Greenville News last week that MRR might drop the project if the county would buy the land where the landfill is proposed.
Martin said he can’t imagine anyone favoring a coal ash landfill, particularly one at a construction dump that wasn’t originally targeted for ash disposal.
“This has unified people on the left, on the right and everywhere in between,’’ Martin said. “We don’t want it.’’