Another lawsuit filed over pollution at Conway’s Grainger plant

dwren@thesunnews.comApril 29, 2013 

— Pollution from a pair of coal ash ponds at Santee Cooper’s retired Grainger electric generating plant here has sparked another lawsuit – this one filed by The Southern Environmental Law Center, which alleges the state-owned utility is violating the federal Clean Water Act.

This is at least the fourth lawsuit filed in recent months over high levels of arsenic that are discharging from the ash ponds into surrounding groundwater. The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed two lawsuits in state court alleging that Santee Cooper has violated the state’s Pollution Control Act and asking a judge to force the utility to remove the ash ponds. The Coalition for Clean Energy is suing the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control over its failure to act on a permit application that would have limited the amount of pollution discharged from the Grainger facility. All of the lawsuits are pending.

The latest lawsuit – filed Monday in federal court in Charleston – alleges that Santee Cooper has known since at least the mid-1990s that arsenic levels of up to 300 times the federal safe limits have been seeping into groundwater around the unlined ash ponds, which are adjacent to the Waccamaw River. Environmentalists say the pollution threatens the river as well as the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, which is located downstream from the Grainger facility.

Frank Holleman, a lawyer for The Southern Environmental Law Center, said the groundwater discharges violate the Clean Water Act. The center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Winyah Rivers Foundation, which operates the Waccamaw Riverkeeper program. Holleman is asking a judge to force Santee Cooper to move pollution from the ash ponds to an off-site, lined landfill and clean up the groundwater so it meets federal drinking water standards. Holleman is asking for a jury trial, which has not been scheduled.

Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore called the lawsuit “another distraction from what should be handled through the regulatory process.”

Gore said the utility has worked with regulators such as DHEC for more than a year on plans to close the Grainger plant and ultimately remediate the ash ponds.

“We have put forth a plan that is protective of human health and the environment,” Gore said.

Santee Cooper retired the Grainger plant at the end of last year because the facility was too expensive to operate under more stringent environmental regulations. The utility has asked DHEC for permission to combine the pollutants from the two ash ponds into one pond and then encase that pond within a cement vault. DHEC has not ruled on that proposal, which faced opposition from residents during a public hearing that DHEC hosted last week.

Holleman said in Monday’s lawsuit that Santee Cooper’s plan “would leave the coal ash and contamination in place in the floodplain of the Waccamaw River in perpetuity, continuing to discharge pollutants illegally into the waters of the United States on an ongoing basis, and risking a catastrophic failure that would spill hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic coal ash into the Waccamaw River.

The lawsuit alleges two violations of the Clean Water Act, including unlawful discharges of solids and pollutants into state waters and allowing arsenic and other contaminants to seep through groundwater into the river.

Gore said all pollution from the ash ponds is confined to groundwater on the Grainger site and the utility’s testing has not shown any arsenic discharges into the river.

The ash ponds – which total about 82 acres, or more than three times the size of the lake at Broadway at the Beach – contain waste created by the generation of electricity at the coal-fired power plant. Although the 47-year-old Grainger plant was idled last spring, the waste remains in the ponds that are separated from the river by earthen berms. Environmentalists say those berms sometimes are submerged when the river’s water levels are high. Bernard Hawkins, a lawyer representing Santee Cooper, said last week the utility has no indication the berms have ever been submerged or that the ash ponds have ever been flooded by the river.

Groundwater testing at the Grainger site has repeatedly shown arsenic levels ranging from 100 parts per billion to 900 parts per billion – much higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum safe level of 10 parts per billion. Arsenic levels of up to 3,225 parts per billion have been recorded at the site, according to Monday’s lawsuit.

A part per billion is a unit of measurement equivalent to 3 seconds out of a century or one pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.

Arsenic is a colorless and tasteless metal that occurs naturally in soil and from the coal-burning activity that fueled the Grainger plant. Long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to several types of cancers.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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