For almost half a century Santee Cooper dumped coal ash in unlined pits at its Grainger Power Station in Conway, South Carolina. This ash pollutes the Waccamaw River with high levels of arsenic and other toxic heavy metals, prompting SACE and other conservation groups to file suit against the utility for violating the federal Clean Water Act.
On November 19, Santee Cooper announced that they would settle our suit by agreeing to remove all of the Grainger ash waste – equalling 1.3 million tons – as well as the contaminated soil underneath the lagoons, away from the river. They will be looking to “beneficially reuse” most of the ash waste as well as moving some into new capped and lined impoundments offsite.
But in a surprise additional announcement Santee Cooper also committed to removing all the wet-stored ash at its Winyah and Jefferies coal-fired power stations over the next 10 to 15 years, saying that most of the ash will be recycled at a new facility being built in Georgetown, South Carolina. Santee Cooper’s executive vice president of corporate services, R.M. Singletary, calls the plan a “win, win, win” for the local environment, economy, and the utility.
We agree that this is a huge step in the right direction and applaud Santee Cooper’s commitment to clean up their coal ash across South Carolina’s Low Country. In making this announcement, Santee Cooper emerges as a leader in the Southeast for addressing toxic coal ash waste and sets a much needed precedent for the rest of the utilities in our region.
Santee Cooper’s announcement is the second time a South Carolina utility has committed recently to move away from the dirty, outdated, and dangerous practice of storing coal ash in wet lagoons. In August, 2012 South Carolina Electric and Gas made a similar commitment to remove all of the ash at its coal-fired power plant on the Wateree River near Columbia, South Carolina. Both the Waccamaw and Wateree Rivers flow through both North and South Carolina, however North Carolina’s utility giant, Duke Energy, has taken no action to stop wet storage of ash at any of its 14 coal-fired power plants. So, while South Carolina’s utilities are doing the right thing to clean up these beautiful rivers, upstream in North Carolina coal ash pollution continues to dump arsenic, selenium, mercury, boron and many other toxic heavy metals on downstream neighbors.
The patchwork of approaches across states is caused by a lack of federal coal ash regulations, leaving it up to individual states and (in this case) utilities to decide how coal ash will be handled, stored and monitored. SACE, concerned citizens and other conservation groups continue to call on Congress and the EPA to swiftly adopt comprehensive regulations, protecting all rivers and communities from the toxic threat of coal ash pollution, particularly in the wake of the 5th anniversary of the Kingston coal ash disaster in TN. Until such rules are finalized, the courts are the only way we can move utilities toward cleaning up their ash.