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Duke agrees to clean up the last of SC’s coal ash ponds

Duke Energy is joining other South Carolina utilities in agreeing to clean up toxic coal ash that has polluted groundwater and threatened rivers across the Palmetto State.

Duke will dig out and remove more than 3 million tons of contaminated coal ash from its Lee power plant in Anderson County, a site where the stability of dams that contain the refuse first arose in the mid-1980s.

Thursday’s announcement by the nation's largest power company means that every major ash waste lagoon in South Carolina now is targeted for cleanup, making the Palmetto State the first in the South with such plans, environmentalists said.

SCE&G and state-owned Santee Cooper previously agreed to get rid of coal ash that has leaked arsenic and other pollutants into groundwater from ash ponds they operated across South Carolina. The material will be sent to lined landfills, or in some cases, recycled.

Duke’s plan is to put the ash in landfills to reduce the threat of lagoon leaks and spills.

Frank Holleman, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which helped craft the deal with Duke, said Duke’s announcement is historic.

The company’s decision not only reduces the threat that polluted coal ash could wash into the Saluda River, but it will stop the source of groundwater pollution near the river on the Anderson-Greenville county line, said Holleman and representatives of other environmental groups.

“South Carolina will be the first state in the Southeast, where public utilities have either cleaned up, are cleaning or have committed to clean up every (major) ash lagoon in the state,” said Holleman, who recently appeared on the CBS news show “60 Minutes” to discuss Duke’s failure to excavate coal ash ponds in North Carolina.

“That is very significant.”

Coal ash is waste created by burning the fossil fuel to make energy. The material, historically dumped in waste lagoons, is filled with arsenic, metals and other poisons that can slowly leak through the bottoms of the unlined lagoons. Dams that hold back the polluted water also can break, causing catastrophic pollution in nearby rivers.

“With this announcement, South Carolina continues to be a leader in the nation at moving coal ash away from the waters of the state,” Catherine Templeton, chief of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said Thursday. “This is another example of cooperation between industry and the environment.”

UPSTREAM OF LAKE MURRAY

Duke’s Lee coal plant, established in 1951 just east of Williamston, lies above groundwater that has shown elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, chromium and lead.

The plant’s ash basins are uphill from the Saluda River on the Anderson-Greenville county line.

The Saluda is a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people from the mountains to the Columbia area, where it forms Lake Murray and eventually drains into the Congaree River.

According to plans, Duke will dig up the ash in the lagoons and send it to a landfill. It also will remove an ash waste pile. Included in the agreement with the law center are previously announced plans to remove ash from a waste basin that closed years ago.

Ash from the closed basin and a fill area are to be removed and sent to a Homer, Ga., landfill in the next three years. Digging up the two active waste ponds will be done after state regulators approve the work, Duke Energy said. No timetable was specified in a Duke news release Thursday.

Duke officials said that after careful study, they believe ash should be removed from the two waste basins at the Lee power plant site.

The company “incorporated input from the environmental community and other stakeholders to ensure this solution was consistent with our guiding principles,” said John Elnitsky, senior vice president for ash strategy at Duke. “The primary and secondary basins are not ideal long-term locations to house the ash because of the work that would be needed to upgrade those areas for future storage.”

The company closed the Lee power station last month as a coal-generating electrical plant. It will be redeveloped as a natural gas facility, which environmentalists say is a less polluting way of making power.

Duke’s plan to excavate coal ash from the Anderson County site was made as pressure mounts on the power company to clean out polluted ash ponds across North Carolina, where a large spill into the Dan River earlier this year fouled the waterway for miles and attracted national attention.

Because of concerns about coal ash pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is expected Friday to announce the first federal rules on how to handle and dispose of the material – a decision that could greatly affect Duke.

The power company has 14 sites that need attention in North Carolina, but has agreed to remove ash from only a handful of them. A federal criminal probe is under way that includes questions about the relationship between Duke and state regulators in North Carolina.

LEADING THE SOUTH

Holleman and Ulla Reeves, who tracks coal ash issues for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said South Carolina has shown leadership in cleaning up coal ash when other states have not done so.

SCE&G and Santee Cooper agreed to clean up the ash to settle lawsuits filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center. Santee Cooper has said it will clean up more than 11 million tons of ash. SCE&G has not supplied a figure for all of its power plants, but has a binding agreement to dig out more than 2 million tons from its Wateree coal plant in lower Richland County.

“SCE&G and Santee Cooper have done a good job of leading the game in the Southeast,” Reeves said. “So any removal (by Duke) of existing wet impoundments, getting this to lined, safe storage facilities, is huge.”

South Carolina has a dozen coal-fired power sites, including two operated by Duke.

“Today, Duke Energy has agreed to do the right thing in South Carolina and move over 3.2 million tons of its coal ash from the banks of the Saluda River to safer dry, lined storage,” Holleman said.

Thursday’s announcement leaves only a small ash basin in Darlington County without excavation plans. The basin, owned by Duke, is one of the smallest in the state and no longer contains water, making it less of an imminent threat than the basins on the Saluda River in Anderson County. Duke has not yet announced plans for that basin.

Duke Energy’s plan to clean out two coal ash basins in Anderson County follows a report last winter in The State newspaper about leaks through the company’s earthen coal ash dams along the Saluda River.

A 2010 report for the federal government found that leaks at the coal ash ponds dated back 24 years, the newspaper found.

The power company’s troubles with its dams in Anderson County were earlier this year lost in the uproar over coal ash ponds in North Carolina, where most of Duke’s waste basins are found. But after the newspaper’s report and criticism from Holleman’s group, DHEC found violations at Duke’s coal ash waste disposal ponds.

During a Feb. 24 DHEC visit to the site, inspectors 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. Trees can weaken dams, making them vulnerable to failure.

Recent letters by DHEC to Duke said the power company needed to shore up the dams as soon as possible because of the potential threat of a dam break to the surrounding environment.

According to an Aug. 21 letter to Duke from DHEC, some of the slopes on the Anderson County dams “failed to meet minimum factors of safety” and the earthen structures needed reinforcing.

The letter, from DHEC dam safety engineer John Poole, cited a recent analysis that said “a deep-seated failure might occur in the upstream side of the secondary ash basin dam.” The letter urged Duke to address the issue.

Despite years of DHEC’s inattention to the problem, Holleman said the agency has become willing to examine concerns at the Anderson County plant this year amid national concern about Duke’s coal ash ponds. In contrast, North Carolina regulators were reluctant to do so, he said.

This past fall, Duke agreed to remove coal ash from a closed pond and other disposal sites in Anderson County, but stopped short of saying it would dig out the existing waste ponds. Its plans faced questions and some criticism from the S.C. Public Service Commission on why it was not moving more quickly.

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