COLUMBIA, SC Since a power company began digging up coal ash from a leaking waste pond west of Myrtle Beach, arsenic levels have dropped dramatically in groundwater, according to an environmental group that pushed to have the ash removed.
The state-owned Santee Cooper company has excavated more than a half million tons of coal ash from disposal areas at its closed Grainger power station in Horry County — and arsenic pollution has dropped from 60 to 90 percent in groundwater, the Southern Environmental Law Center said in a news release Wednesday.
“These results show that removing coal ash from unlined riverfront pits dramatically reduces pollution, as well as the risk of catastrophic failure,” Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the law center, said in a statement.
Arsenic, which is toxic, often leaks into groundwater from unlined coal waste ponds. The material has been found in groundwater near coal ponds across the country and in South Carolina. Arsenic-tinged groundwater not only poses a threat to people who drink from wells, but also to rivers fed by seeping groundwater. Although most of the area near the Grainger plant is on public water, the coal waste ponds are on the banks of the Waccamaw River.
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Holleman’s group sued Santee Cooper over the pollution before settling the case in 2013. As part of the deal, the power company agreed to remove ash from unlined waste pits at the Grainger coal-fired power station, along the Waccamaw and U.S. 501 at Conway. The cleanup has been ongoing since the settlement. The Grainger plant has been closed and demolished.
Before the ash was removed, monitoring wells registered levels of arsenic in groundwater far above safe drinking water standards.
One monitoring well, for instance, registered arsenic contamination of 450 parts per billion, or 45 times the state standard, the law center said. This April, contamination had dropped to 4 ppb, the law center said, citing a report provided recently by Santee Cooper to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Mollie Gore, a spokeswoman for Santee Cooper, said the company “is pleased’’ that removing the ash from waste ponds has gone well. She said the ash being excavated from the Grainger site is being recycled.
The law center has been on a sustained campaign to force the excavation of coal ash from waste ponds at power plants across the country. The environmental group, headquartered in Virginia, has been involved in intense battles with Duke Energy in North Carolina over ash cleanups. But the group has helped persuade major power companies to dig up all of their ash in South Carolina and either re-use it or truck it to lined landfills.
Earlier this year, test results showed that arsenic levels had dropped sharply in groundwater near SCE&G’s Wateree River power station in Richland County southeast of Columbia. The drop also occurred after coal ash was removed from the waste ponds, which had been blamed for polluting the groundwater.