A circuit court judge ruled Wednesday that a pair of environmental groups will get to question state health regulators about their failure to act on a permit application that could limit the amount of arsenic and other pollutants migrating into the Waccamaw River from unlined coal ash ponds at Santee Cooper’s Grainger electric generating plant here.
Judge Alison Lee denied a request by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to dismiss the lawsuit, filed last year by the Winyah Rivers Foundation Inc. and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. That ruling in a Richland County court means the environmental groups can subpoena documents and take depositions of DHEC officials to continue building their case.
Pollution at the Grainger plant has been governed by a permit DHEC issued in 2002 that set no limits on the amounts of arsenic, mercury and copper that could be discharged into the river from the coal ash ponds and groundwater at the electric facility. Although that permit expired in 2006, state law allowed the Grainger plant to continue operating under its terms while DHEC reviewed an application for a new permit.
DHEC proposed a new permit in 2008 that would limit the amount of pollution coming from the plant, but tabled it after Santee Cooper objected. No further action was taken on the permit application. The environmental groups say DHEC’s failure to issue a new permit means the public was never formally notified of the pollution and never given an opportunity to push for tighter regulation at the electric plant.
“It’s long past time for DHEC to do the job it was supposed to do – protect the citizens,” said Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups.
DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
No further court dates have been set, although Holleman said he expects the case could go to trial this summer.
Environmental testing completed after the Grainger permit expired shows Santee Cooper has discharged arsenic into the Waccamaw River at rates up to 90 parts per billion – nine times the 10 parts per billion allowed under federal regulations. A part per billion is a measurement that represents the concentration of something in water or soil. One part per billion would be equivalent to adding a pinch of salt to a 10 ton bag of potato chips.
The Grainger plant was idled last spring and officially shut down on Dec. 31, but tests show the coal ash ponds – where 650,000 tons of waste from the electric generating process was dumped for decades – continue to leak contaminants into the groundwater and the adjacent Waccamaw River. The coal ash ponds are separated from the river by earthen dikes that are partially submerged whenever river water levels are high.
The Southern Environmental Law Center included the Waccamaw River on its list of the 10 most endangered places in the Southeast, saying the coal ash ponds are a threat to drinking water supplies located downstream on the river and a nearby national wildlife refuge.
The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed a separate lawsuit against Santee Cooper, seeking to force the state-owned utility to remove the ash ponds. That lawsuit is pending in Horry County.