A decision will be made in the next few months that will affect the reputation, the economy and the natural resources of Conway and the Waccamaw River for decades to come: Will Santee Cooper leave arsenic pollution and 1.3 million tons of toxic coal ash in the wetlands of the Waccamaw River in downtown Conway forever? That is the question before SCDHEC, the courts and Santee Cooper itself.
First, the background. For decades, Santee Cooper burned coal at its Grainger plant adjacent to the Waccamaw River. Huge unlined pits were dug in the Waccamaw swamp right in the middle of Conway and leftover ash from coal combustion was dumped there…over 1.3 million tons of coal ash separated from the fiver only by an earthen embankment made of silt and soil that is often wet due to the river’s rise and fall.
For years, Santee Cooper and SCDHEC have known that the coal ash dumps have been leaking arsenic, a cancer-causing toxin, into the underlying groundwater and into the Waccamaw River itself. At Grainger, the groundwater contamination with arsenic has been measured at levels over 320 times the legal limit of 10 parts per billion, or 3,228 ppb. In 2009, SCDHEC stated, in writing, that Santee Cooper is violating South Carolina law because of its arsenic pollution. Despite measurable levels of arsenic in the Waccamaw River, Santee Cooper has continued to put more toxic coal ash into the swamp and has continued to pollute groundwater and the Waccamaw River.
Recently, Santee Cooper proposed that it leave the toxic coal ash in the Waccamaw wetlands forever, by building a large “vault” or mausoleum around the coal ash. This unprecedented large structure would extend 35 feet deep into the swamp and over 40 feet above sea level, and would include a wall of concrete and clay over one mile long.
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Instead of this “vault,” we have urged that the toxic coal ash and source of arsenic contamination be removed. The Conway City Council has passed a unanimous resolution agreeing with our position, as did almost all the speakers at SCDHEC’s public hearing held in Conway.
Conway citizens and its elected officials are overwhelmingly opposed, and for good reason. Here is why SCDHEC should deny approval of the “vault” plan and why Santee Cooper should move the toxic coal ash and arsenic instead:
• The “vault” will leak. The “vault” plan is based upon the belief that there is a waterproof clay layer 35 feet below the swamp. In fact, the scientists who have studied this “clay” have found that this layer is made of fossils, limestone, and sand and silt, that it will leak, and that the vault won’t work. In addition, similar walls like that proposed have failed to prevent continuing pollution in other parts of the country;
• The coal ash will remain in an area where we have hurricanes, floods, tropical storms and even the possibility of an earthquake. Leaving the coal ash in place leaves a perpetual risk that the coal ash will spill into the Waccamaw River, exposing our River, the City of Conway as well as downstream users, and Santee Cooper to great risk;
• The proposed “vault” landfill violates federal and state law, landfill requirements, and Horry County’s zoning ordinance;
• Santee Cooper’s plan does nothing to clean up existing arsenic contamination outside the walls of the “vault”;
• Santee Cooper and its ratepayers will continue to be exposed to great financial and legal risk from arsenic and coal ash pollution -- and the risk that tens of millions of dollars will be wasted on a “vault” that will fail, not solve the problem, and expose our citizens and our river to continuing public health and water pollution issues.
• Moving the coal ash to a lined landfill (Santee Cooper has one available near Pineville, S.C.) will save everyone money and heartache in the long run.
The beautiful and historic City of Conway shouldn’t be known for its “coal ash mausoleum”. Instead, Conway should be recognized as a tourism destination known for its beautiful black water river, its federally designated Waccamaw River Blue Trail, its beautiful cypress swamps and for the quality of life its citizens hope to enjoy. Building a huge landfill for coal ash in the heart of town will taint our wonderful Waccamaw River and Conway’s reputation forever.
We hope that SCDHEC and Santee Cooper will respond to the overwhelming sentiment in the Conway community that the coal ash and its arsenic should be moved away from the Waccamaw River and downtown Conway to a secure disposal facility where it will not impact public health and our natural resources.
Let’s do the right thing for the Waccamaw River, for Conway, for our families and for our future. Move the toxic coal ash away from the Waccamaw River and downtown Conway.
The writer is the Waccamaw Riverkeeper.