How DHEC's oversight of coal plants fell short

South Carolina running back Devin Potter
South Carolina running back Devin Potter dmclemore@thestate.com

The Department of Health and Environmental Control says it can be trusted to oversee a $2.2 billion coal-fired electric power plant Santee Cooper wants to build in Florence County.

But the agency’s past difficulties overseeing Santee Cooper’s coal plants have raised loud objections from conservationists and some doctors about whether DHEC would be a good a watchdog for health and the environment when it comes to Santee Cooper.

For more than a decade, Santee Cooper sent “massive” illegal amounts of pollutants into the air at its Winyah coal plant in Georgetown County, according to federal documents. DHEC was in charge of oversight but didn’t stop the pollution.

And, in late 2002, Santee Cooper began a major expansion of its Cross Station coal plant in Berkeley County without DHEC’s knowledge or permission.

Santee Cooper, without admitting wrongdoing in either of the two incidents, paid a $2 million fine in 2004 after state and federal regulators sued. As part of the settlement, Santee Cooper agreed to upgrade pollution-control devices at its four coal-fired plants, at an expected cost of $100 million.

“These two events indicate a total lack of vigilance on DHEC’s part,” said Ben Gregg, executive director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation, who has been publicly critical of the proposed Florence County plant.

But The State has learned new details about those two violations that could raise more questions about DHEC and its watchdog role:

 DHEC discovered the Cross Station plant expansion only by accident — not through a regular inspection process that would normally turn up problems. An off-duty DHEC employee who was boating on Lake Moultrie saw construction along the shore that had been going on for months, federal and state regulators confirmed recently.

 The cost of upgrading pollution control devices at Santee Cooper’s coal plants has ballooned to $428 million from $100 million, according to the utility’s latest annual report. And Santee Cooper might have to close either or both of its aging Jefferies or Grainger plants, in Berkeley and Horry counties, said DHEC air quality bureau chief Myra Reece.

DHEC officials would have discovered the unauthorized construction at the Cross Station plant at some point and taken action, Reece said.

And DHEC officials say they knew the EPA was investigating illegal emissions from the Winyah plant and so they didn’t take action themselves.

But Gregg said the two incidents cause him to wonder just how carefully DHEC is looking at Santee Cooper’s plans for a new plant.

“Ideally, you should have a public agency that puts public health above all else,” Gregg said. “DHEC’s other missions really cloud the public health purpose of the agency.”

Gregg and others say that, perhaps especially when it comes to Santee Cooper, DHEC has three incompatible missions: overseeing pollution releases, protecting public health — and promoting economic development.


DHEC commissioner Earl Hunter said his agency always balances its missions. Public health is first, he said.

However, with the proposed plant, those missions collide.

If the plant isn’t built, Santee Cooper contends, there won’t be enough electricity for the Pee Dee’s future needs — to power schools and homes and attract future industry.

Santee Cooper and its allies gave impassioned pleas for the coal plant during a recent public hearing in Pamplico, about 10 miles from where the plant would be built. Two busloads full of supporters came to the meeting, sporting green shirts and buttons backing the facility. About 500 people attended, many of them saying the plant would create jobs and help the local economy.

The 2,700-acre plant, to be built 25 miles southeast of Florence, would be huge.

Its smokestack would be 650 feet tall — 95 feet taller than the Washington Monument.

It would consume 4 million tons of coal a year in two giant coal furnaces that would produce 1,320 megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power 300,000 to 500,000 homes and perhaps hundreds of new businesses.

But what it would release into the air, even with pollution controls, is causing a stir statewide.

Each year, the smokestack would release 9 million tons of atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide, at least 93 pounds of potentially nerve-damaging mercury and thousands of tons of other pollutants. The smokestack would release pollutants high enough to be caught by upper wind currents.

Those protesting the coal plant include state and national environmental groups, some area doctors and residents and 10 attorneys general from other states. They fear winds will carry the pollution their way.

The sticking point, they say, is that coal pollutes — a lot.

And, they say, Santee Cooper’s request comes at a time when many U.S. utilities are deciding against building coal plants. Santee Cooper itself is touting the virtues of nuclear power as it advocates for a nuclear plant it wants to build with SCE&G north of Columbia.

“Nuclear is the right choice for us,” said SCE&G spokesman Eric Boomhower. “The fact that it is a clean energy source makes it the right choice for us.”

Santee Cooper alone in the state is pushing to build a coal plant. Progress Energy has a moratorium on them; Duke and SCE&G have no plans for more.

The nuclear plant Santee Cooper wants to build north of Columbia would go on line in 2017 at the earliest, the utility said; the coal plant could begin meeting demand as early as 2013.

Santee Cooper says its pollution-control technology at the coal plant would be top-grade, capturing nearly everything that’s dangerous. The technology includes large “scrubbers” for sulfur dioxide and “baghouses” for mercury. In all, Santee Cooper plans to spend close to $1 billion — about half the cost of the plant — on pollution control.

Although today’s plants remove most pollutants from coal, Santee Cooper’s four plants burn so much — 9.8 million tons last year — that they still release thousands of tons of toxics annually, according to DHEC emissions reports. But there is no pollution control device for carbon dioxide.

Florence pediatrician Weaver Whitehead said, despite the filtering, the pollution released each year will make many people sick. There will be an increase in everything from doctors’ office visits to hospital admissions, he predicted.

“I care for many families in that area and know of several fragile asthmatics who will likely be affected by that plant’s dirty air,” he said.


Sulfur dioxide and dusty particle pollution can cause or aggravate breathing problems. Mercury causes nerve and brain damage.

But mercury is what has people most concerned.

South Carolinians can get mercury poisoning by eating mercury-laced fish, mostly from slow-moving creeks and rivers.

More than a decade of testing has shown that mercury has rendered some types of fish in all or part of 57 S.C. waterways unsafe to eat except in small amounts. Many scientists think the higher mercury readings come mostly from power plants and other industrial sources, inside and outside the state, and are compounded by the rivers’ chemical compositions.

The Wildlife Federation’s Gregg said DHEC is “schizophrenic.” Its health division warns people about mercury dangers from fish, and its air-quality permitting division is letting Santee Cooper emit mercury.

“Something is wrong with DHEC,” Gregg said.

Last year at a public hearing, Gregg criticized DHEC for not testing humans, especially near Pamplico, for blood mercury levels. People, many poor and without health care, have been left on their own to consult a doctor if they think they have a problem.

In July, after public criticism from Gregg and others, DHEC announced it would do mercury testing not just on fish but on people. “DHEC should have done the testing without being criticized,” Gregg said.

The agency hasn’t said how extensive the testing will be. Hunter said DHEC still is formulating the study’s dimensions.

Much thought has to be put into medical studies involving humans, Hunter said. Studies must have control groups, and participants must answer extensive questions. The different possible sources for mercury add to the study’s complexity, he said.

“We are trying to move as quickly as we can,” Hunter said.

Late last year, DHEC issued a preliminary air permit for Santee Cooper’s proposed plant and is reviewing specific emission limits. It may be months before officials issue a final permit. Federal officials will study water quality issues separately.

Local residents are watching.

In the Pee Dee — in Pamplico, Johnsonville, Kingstree, Lake City and along the I-95 corridor — people love to fish.

Randy Stone, a 61-year-old Johnsonville resident who for years regularly ate local fish, has suffered what his doctor says are symptoms of mercury poisoning: dizziness, hair loss and the inability to concentrate.

“We need jobs, but I don’t think they should build the plant unless they can deal with the mercury,” Stone said.

Terry Cook, 43, lives next to the plant site. She has eaten area fish all her life.

“They can build it with far less mercury than they are” proposing to put out, Cook said in May of the plant.

In late September, Cook seemed prophetic.

DHEC officials lowered the proposed mercury release ceiling to 93 pounds from Santee Cooper’s latest suggestion of 114 pounds, saying they had analyzed other coal plants and done new projections.

Critics say that’s not enough.


Economic development is a key reason many want the plant.

Santee Cooper says its customers — and the state — need the plant. The utility wants permission to build a 1,320-megawatt plant but says it will build a 660-megawatt unit and decide later about expanding.

“We have to furnish power when somebody wants it,” said Santee Cooper chief financial officer Bill McCall. He said the utility is required by law to do so. It has to be ready for energy-hungry companies like Google, which recently bought land in Berkeley County, he said. The company plans to invest $600 million and create 200 jobs.

What DHEC decides on air and water discharges for the plant is important. DHEC is the only major outside regulator of Santee Cooper. State law exempts the utility, a state agency, from the oversight of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates other utilities in South Carolina. But unlike the PSC, DHEC does not study the need for a plant.

Ralph Thomas, who directs the SC Power Team — an industry recruitment alliance of Santee Cooper and the 20 electric cooperatives it supplies — said without Santee Cooper, many industries couldn’t have come to the state.

In the past 20 years, Thomas said, Santee Cooper has provided low-cost electricity to more than 600 new and expanding businesses that represent $6.7 billion in investment and 39,000 jobs.

“The availability of electricity is a crucial resource to economic development,” Thomas said.

The plant even could help offset some 2,000 jobs lost in recent years when textile plants closed, said Pamplico Mayor Gene Gainey.

“This will help generate more industry,” he said, adding that more than 1,100 area residents last year signed a petition supporting the plant. “I don’t believe Santee Cooper would do anything to harm the community.”

Gainey said the plant also would bring more than $200 million in nearby road and bridge improvements.

Only one Pee Dee politician is openly opposing the plant — Stephen Wukela, the newly elected Democratic mayor of Florence, the Pee Dee’s largest city.

“As a trade-off for the lungs of our children, they propose giving us jobs,” Wukela said.

Most S.C. politicians are silent.

But U.S. Rep. Bob Inglis, R-Greenville, has been critical. He has said coal plants use the sky as a low-cost trash dump.


Some environmentalists think the potential dangers call for drastic measures.

Dana Beach’s South Carolina Coastal Conservation League is spending $100,000 in grant money on a consultant to study the need for a plant, especially in a slow economy.

Synapse Energy Economics of Cambridge, Mass., is expected to report this fall. The firm also will look at whether conservation or renewable energy sources, such as solar power, would offset the need for coal-generated electricity. Another area of study is whether the current economic slowdown will lessen the projected need for electricity.

Santee Cooper has agreed to cooperate.

Beach said he hopes the study — more wide-ranging than what DHEC is doing — will show the plant is not needed or could be significantly scaled back.

But the study is nonbinding on Santee Cooper.

DHEC, meanwhile, is focused on emissions, Hunter said.

“Our main job is to make sure if they are going to build it, that they have the very best (pollution) control technology, that air quality standards are met,” he said.

Federal officials are expected to do some evaluation of alternatives during the water-permitting process, DHEC officials said.

Hunter stressed DHEC has made no decisions and will consider all facts and laws.

“We have to be able to justify what we do,” he said.

Some who favor the plant worry DHEC’s oversight won’t be assertive enough.

Tom Smith of Pamplico once was a Democratic state senator from Florence County. Now, he is staff attorney to the 30,000-member, six-county Pee Dee Electric Cooperative served by Santee Cooper. DHEC perhaps has to balance too much, Smith said.

“You have to wonder if DHEC is up to the task,” he said.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537. Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

Related stories from The State in Columbia SC