For decades, the toxic legacy of making electricity from coal lay at the bottom of a pond near the Wateree River in eastern Richland County.
Blackened ash, which coated the pond’s floor, contained arsenic and other pollutants that poisoned groundwater and trickled into the river, upstream from the state’s only national park.
But today, after years of dumping coal ash from its Wateree plant into the pond, SCE&G is nearing completion of a multimillion-dollar cleanup.
The effort, part of a lawsuit settlement in 2012, is credited with cleansing groundwater and reducing the threat of a catastrophic spill of pollution into the Wateree River, above Congaree National Park.
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SCE&G has excavated and removed 2.7 million tons of ash and dirt from the coal-ash pond at its Wateree power station on U.S. 601. Part of the cleanup has been completed and approved by state regulators, with the remainder to be finished by mid-2019, according to an email from SCE&G and a July report the utility made to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Opened in 1970, the coal-burning Wateree power station lies in a sparsely populated area of eastern Richland County, near the Sumter County line.
Many residents who live in the area rely on wells. So far, no evidence of drinking-water contamination from the coal ash has surfaced.
Still, the fear of a spill powered the cleanup. Arsenic, one of the key pollutants in coal ash, can cause vomiting, diarrhea and paralysis in people exposed to elevated levels. It also has been linked to various cancers.
Records from monitoring wells show arsenic levels in area groundwater have dropped since the cleanup began.
“This is a tremendous success story,’’ said Frank Holleman, a Greenville attorney who is with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It shows how citizens groups and the people around Eastover and Columbia have had a real effect on cleaning up serious pollution.’’
Holleman’s organization, representing the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, settled a lawsuit with SCE&G in 2012 that required the utility to dig up and remove coal ash at the Wateree station. That suit was one of several the group settled with S.C. utilities, putting the state ahead of many others in cleaning up its approximately 20 commercial coal-ash ponds.
Santee Cooper, Duke cleaning up ash ponds, too
The safety of coal-ash ponds has been a focus of attention nationally since 2008, when a spill in Tennessee sent billions of gallons of polluted coal waste across a river valley.
But the best way to stop coal-ash spills and leaks has been a matter of debate. The success of the Wateree cleanup comes as many utilities — and President Donald Trump’s administration — are seeking to delay coal-ash cleanups, citing high costs.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently eased rules for coal ash cleanups. The plan came at the urging of utilities, worried about the estimated $32 million to $100 million a year in compliance costs, The Washington Post reported.
The rule changes give utilities more freedom in how they dispose of toxic coal ash and more time to complete the cleanups, according to news reports and environmental organizations.
In South Carolina, however, SCE&G, Duke Energy and the state-owned Santee Cooper utility already have signed binding legal agreements to clean up their coal-ash ponds, or they have told state regulators they will dig up the ponds and remove the material.
Those cleanups, which involve excavating and removing coal ash rather than leaving it in place, either are underway or planned for the near future.
Overall, Santee Cooper is in the process of cleaning up 12 million tons of coal ash across eastern South Carolina. It has spent $130 million on the cleanups and expects to spend another $300 million to complete the work, spokeswoman Mollie Gore said Wednesday. Among those sites is the now-closed Grainger power station, west of Myrtle Beach.
However, Dominion Energy, the Virginia-based utility that wants to buy SCE&G parent SCANA, is among the utilities that have not committed to digging up and removing ash from all of its waste ponds.
Rare praise for SCE&G
Praise from environmentalists and others has been in short supply for SCE&G during the past year.
Critics have hammered the utility for walking away from a partially finished nuclear construction project, northwest of Columbia. That joint project with Santee Cooper cost the utilities $9 billion, much of which they propose to charge ratepayers.
Spokeswoman Aimee Murray said SCE&G plans to complete the coal-ash cleanup. The utility did not provide a cost estimate on how much it has spent or say whether it was charging its customers for the cleanup. But the utility’s 2017 annual report shows SCE&G spent $23.6 million over a three-year period to clean up ash ponds and establish landfills.
“The company does not anticipate any schedule changes to its coal-ash removal plans and estimates that it will complete the removal of coal ash at Wateree Station by mid-2019,’’ Murray said in an email to The State.
While arsenic levels in groundwater on parts of the Wateree site remain slightly above the federal standard for safe drinking water, those levels now are substantially lower than in 2012, according to SCE&G’s July report to DHEC.
Holleman said dwindling levels of arsenic in groundwater show how important it was to remove the source of the pollution — coal ash — from SCE&G’s Wateree plant.
“Instead of there being a toxic dump literally on the edge of the river, there now is a grass field,’’ Holleman said. “This should tell others in the industry that they can do it, too.’’