The Southern Environmental Law Center on Thursday filed a notice with the Environmental Protection Agency and others alleging that state-owned utility Santee Cooper is violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing pollution at its Grainger electric generating plant here to seep into the Waccamaw River.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said there is no indication pollution is making its way into the river and called the law center’s allegations “more of the same,” referring to a pair of lawsuits the group already has filed over the Grainger plant.
The notice gives Santee Cooper 60 days to correct the alleged violations. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control would be in charge of enforcing the notice on behalf of the EPA.
If the utility doesn’t comply, environmentalists could file a lawsuit in federal court seeking to force Santee Cooper to stop the pollution, according to Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center. Such a lawsuit would seek an injunction against Santee Cooper to stop the pollution as well as monetary fees, penalties and costs of litigation, according to the notice. A federal judge could impose penalties of up to $37,500 per violation for each day the utility is not in compliance.
“DHEC has been put on notice that now is the time to act to clean up the pollution that’s been a matter of public record for decades,” Holleman said. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the notice on behalf of the Waccamaw Riverkeepers Foundation Inc.
DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley said the agency does not comment on pending legal matters.
The notice alleges three violations of the Clean Water Act, including unlawful discharges of solids and pollutants into state waters, specifically the Waccamaw River, and allowing arsenic and other contaminants to seep through groundwater into the river.
Environmental tests show pollution is seeping into groundwater from a pair of coal ash ponds at the Grainger plant. Those unlined 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 Grainger plant stopped operating on Dec. 31, the waste remains in the ponds that are separated from the river by earthen berms. Those berms sometimes are submerged when the river’s water levels are high.
Gore said any pollution is confined to groundwater on the Grainger site.
“This is another unnecessary distraction in our efforts to properly close the ash ponds through the appropriate regulatory channels,” she said.
The notice of Clean Water Act violations is in addition to a pair of pending lawsuits the Southern Environmental Law Center has filed against Santee Cooper in state court.
One of those lawsuits seeks to force DHEC to issue a new permit for the Grainger plant that would limit the amount of pollution seeping into the groundwater and river from the coal ash ponds.
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. 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. 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.
The second lawsuit seeks to force Santee Cooper to remove the coal ash ponds from the Grainger site.
The Grainger plant has been idle since last spring. Santee Cooper’s board voted in October to shut down the plant after considering the cost of complying with more stringent environmental regulations.
High levels of arsenic and other contaminants have been migrating since at least the 1990s from the Grainger plant ponds into surrounding groundwater and the pollution could impact the adjacent Waccamaw River, according to a lawsuit filed by the Winyah Riverkeepers Foundation Inc., the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
Initial groundwater monitoring at the Grainger site included six wells and data was reported semi-annually to state regulators. Three of those wells consistently showed groundwater arsenic levels below the EPA’s maximum safe level of 10 parts per billion. The other three wells consistently showed arsenic levels ranging from less than 100 parts per billion to 900 parts per billion.
Additional wells installed in 2009 showed even higher levels of arsenic in the groundwater – up to 2,112 parts per billion, or more than 200 times the federal government’s drinking water standard.
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.
Environmentalists say DHEC has been slow to force Santee Cooper to clean up the pollution even though the state agency in charge of protecting the public’s health and environment has known about the arsenic contamination in groundwater for more than a decade.
Holleman said the ponds could dump up to 650,000 tons – the equivalent of more than 30,000 double-axle dump truck loads – of coal ash into the Waccamaw River in the event of a hurricane, flood or other natural disaster.
“It could compromise the drinking water intakes and perhaps interrupt water service for some extended period of time,” Holleman said, referring to the Waccamaw River’s status as one of the drinking water sources for the Grand Strand Water and Sewer Authority, which supplies drinking water to this area.
Holleman said the long-term biological impact on the river could be serious and difficult to predict, and the legal liability for the utility would be “staggering.”
Such a disaster would not be unprecedented. In late 2008, a dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., ruptured and spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry into the Emory and Clinch rivers. The Tennessee Valley Authority will spend an estimated $1.2 billion to clean up the mess, which killed fish, destroyed homes and threatened drinking water.
The Southern Environmental Law Center recently 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.