Now, the dirty ponds in Conway are finally in the process of being closed (not cleaned up) for good, but the plan for this closure has some residents and environmentalists concerned about their personal health and safety as well as the health of the nearby river.
Santee Cooper has two coal ash ponds at the Grainger location next to the Waccamaw River that need to be safely taken care of. The ponds include waste byproducts from the coal-burning power plant, which operated from 1966 until it was shut down last year. These byproducts are commonly known as coal ash, which may contain as many as 12 pollutants, such as lead and arsenic, that can cause harmful health effects, such as cancer and birth defects. Environmental groups believe that coal ash needs to be reclassified as a hazardous waste, but currently the EPA hasn’t moved on the issue nor does it look like it will anytime soon. There are approximately 1,160 coal ash ponds in the United States and some are as old as 100 years. Coal ash ponds have the potential to pollute surface water, contaminant groundwater and cause massive environmental damage with a dam break such as the disaster in Tennessee in 2008 that will cost $1 billion to clean up.
On the home front, Santee Cooper proposes that the Ash Ponds be closed by installing a cap with lateral isolation, also being called a “vault”, to contain all of the coal ash on site. The plan, as engineered by an international company called ARCADIS, calls moving the contents of Ash Pond No. 2 to Ash Pond No. 1, building a cement-fortified barrier wall around Ash Pond No. 1 and constructing a multi-layer synthetic liner over the vault. ARCADIS, headquartered in London but with an office in Durham, N.C., provides consultancy, design, engineering and management services in the fields of infrastructure, water, environment and buildings. Recently, ARCADIS was an exhibitor at the World of Coal Ash conference in Lexington, Ky.
According to a statement from R.M. Singletary, Santee Cooper’s vice president for corporate services, “We examined several plans that met environmental objectives and used proven technology and sound engineering, and then chose the plan which met that criteria and was the most cost-effective method of closure. I am confident that this closure plan addresses the best interests of those living in the community near Grainger, our customers and the state as a whole.” This proposed plan will cost $40 million and take about three years to complete.
But environmentalists are not sold on the concept of locking up the coal ash in a vault and throwing away the key, so to speak. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy states that this plan “fails to provide evidence that the proposed vault method has been successfully used for containment of coal ash in a wetland.”
A public hearing was held April 23 and residents that spoke said that they were worried that the vault proposal wouldn’t be safe enough and they’d rather see the coal ash completely removed from the site. In February, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a notice against Santee Cooper regarding findings that arsenic has been leaking into the Waccamaw River from the power plant. The notice stated that the center will sue for violation of the federal Clean Water Act if Santee Cooper didn’t cleanse the site. Then on April 29, the SELC filed suit under the United States Clean Water Act on behalf of the Waccamaw Riverkeeper against Santee Cooper for its illegal water pollution from coal ash at its Grainger facility. For decades, arsenic and other harmful substances from coal ash have polluted groundwater and the Waccamaw River, in violation of Santee Cooper’s water pollution elimination permit. According to the press release in the suit, Santee Cooper stores 1.3 million tons of coal ash in unlined pits in wetlands on the Waccamaw River. At least since the early 1990s, Santee Cooper has known that its coal ash at Conway is discharging high levels of arsenic.
Frank Holleman with the SELC stated: “Santee Cooper is violating state law. Santee Cooper is violating federal law. Santee Cooper is even violating its old, generous permit. And Santee Cooper has proposed a closure plan that would leave its pollution behind in Conway and that would not deal with its violations of law. We hope Santee Cooper will decide to do the right thing for Conway and the Waccamaw River and remove its coal ash and its arsenic from Conway.”
Regarding the vault idea, the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, Christine Ellis, believes, “we don’t think that the leave-in-place alternative is good for public health, the environment of our community and its future. We do think the most prudent choice for the protection of our river and our community is to move the toxic coal ash out of the wetlands of the Waccamaw.”
Santee Cooper’s proposal must be approved by DHEC before starting the actual closure process. Public comments will be accepted until May 9 and written statements may be sent directly to Randy Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, you may also contact the Waccamaw Riverkeeper at email@example.com or 349-4007.
Santee Cooper is hosting a public drop-in meeting from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday (May 7) at the retail office location, 100 Elm Street in Conway. At this drop-in, employees will be available to explain details about the proposal. There will be models and detailed cutouts of the proposed structure and information about how people can comment on the plan.
All of the proposal documents for the Santee Cooper Ash Pond Closure may be found on DHEC’s Web site: www.scdhec.gov/environment/water