Santee Cooper’s recycling efforts at Myrtle Beach-area electric plant a win for utility and environmentalists

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of occasional stories about the growing dichotomy between environmental concerns and economic development in Horry County and along the Waccamaw Neck.

A unique recycling process that uses wet coal ash to help manufacture concrete products has both environmentalists and officials with state-owned utility Santee Cooper claiming victories at the closed Grainger electric plant here.

Environmentalists are happy because approximately 1.3 million tons of coal ash stored on approximately 82 acres at the Grainger site will be removed by 2023, eliminating the threat that pollutants such as arsenic could contaminate the adjacent Waccamaw River.

“The removal of the coal ash from Grainger is a victory for the river and the communities up and down the river,” said Nancy Cave, north coast director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League.

Santee Cooper can boast about its role at the forefront of a process that could clean up toxic coal ash ponds around the country, thereby preventing catastrophic spills like Duke Energy’s 39,000-ton coal ash dump this year into the Dan River near Eden, N.C.

Santee Cooper is among the first utilities in the nation to participate in the wet ash recycling process, which industry experts say will gain popularity as federal regulators are set this year to issue new rules on coal ash disposal. In addition to Grainger, the utility will be using the recycling process to empty the ash ponds at its Jefferies and Winyah plants. All told, 11 million tons of wet ash at the three sites will be recycled in some form over the next 15 years.

“One of the things that makes this exciting is that we’re out front on this taking care of something that was an issue,” said Tom Kierspe, Santee Cooper’s vice president for environmental property and water systems management.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency is touting the benefits of increased coal ash recycling, pointing out that each ton of ash used in concrete mixtures eliminates activities that would produce one ton of greenhouse gases. Recycling also preserves natural resources and boosts the economy, the federal agency stated in a recent report.

However, plenty of questions remain, including the type of redevelopment that might occur on the Grainger site and what the future holds for Lake Busbee, the 325-acre cooling pond that has served as both a landmark and recreational opportunity for Conway residents since the electric plant opened in 1966.

By law, the lake is supposed to be drained and closed because it no longer is needed by the Grainger facility, which closed at the end of 2012. However, Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore leaves open the possibility that the lake might live on.

“We’re looking at a number of options,” Gore said. “Conway is interested in keeping it open and we’re interested in doing an evaluation with all stakeholders to do what’s best.”

A cutting-edge solution

One of the biggest stakeholders in the transformation at Grainger and other coal-fired electric plants owned by Santee Cooper is the SEFA Group Inc., a Lexington-based manufacturer of concrete products and the company that designed the wet coal ash recycling process.

“We had to do it to survive,” Tom Hendrix, the company’s chief executive officer, said of the patented process developed in 2011 that gives wet ash the strength-producing qualities needed for concrete.

Previously, only dry fly ash had the qualities concrete manufacturers needed. In the years after the federal Clean Air Act amendments were passed in 1990, electric plants designed more strenuous emissions controls that degraded much of the fly ash and made it unsuitable for concrete production. SEFA responded by designing a proprietary thermal process that transforms wet ash into a high-quality product that is as strong and durable as regular concrete.

“If we didn’t move into the ponds we wouldn’t be able to provide an uninterrupted supply to our customers,” Hendrix said. “And if you can’t do that, you’re out of business.”

Thomas Adams, executive director of the American Coal Ash Association, recently told The Associated Press that wet ash -- also known as ponded ash -- recycling represents a future trend for utilities and concrete manufacturers.

“There is more and more interest in using the ponded ash as it becomes obvious those older unlined ponds [like the ones at Grainger] are probably going to be facing some kind of regulation,” Adams said.

As an example, SEFA is building a $40 million facility adjacent to Santee Cooper’s Winyah electric plant in Georgetown. SEFA’s new facility is scheduled to open during the first quarter of next year and it will be able to recycle 400,000 tons of wet fly ash annually – including all of the ash in ponds at Winyah. Some of the coal ash from Grainger and Santee Cooper’s Jefferies generating station near Moncks Corner also will be sent to the SEFA facility.

Coal ash from the Grainger plant currently is being sent by truckloads to Swiss-based Holcim Ltd.’s concrete plant in Holly Hill.

Being able to transport coal ash from three of Santee Cooper’s facilities – Grainger, Jefferies and Winyah – to concrete manufacturers such as SEFA brought economies of scale to Grainger’s closure that allowed the ash ponds to be removed rather than permanently stay in place.

Santee Cooper initially wanted to build a concrete vault around the ash ponds at Grainger, topping the ponds with a synthetic cap to fully enclose them. That would have cost the utility about $40 million. Moving the coal ash from Grainger to an offsite, lined landfill would have cost about $80 million – an amount the utility said was too expensive.

Kierspe said the cost of removing coal ash at three plants under the same program will cost about $250 million – not cheap, but manageable. The Winyah and Jefferies plants are larger than Grainger and have more coal ash to be recycled.

“The challenge was that if you isolate this site [Grainger], there’s not enough material here to make the project work,” Kierspe said. “That’s why we proposed going ahead and letting us incorporate material from all of the sites. We were able to come up with a corporate-wide solution rather than one for this isolated site.”

That innovative approach doesn’t surprise Hendrix, who is one of Santee Cooper’s biggest customers.

“Santee Cooper has always been on the cutting edge of trying to put the ash into the marketplace,” he said.

Litigation and compromise

The road to Santee Cooper’s ash pond solution has been a bumpy one.

Environmental groups have long termed Grainger’s ash ponds a disaster waiting to happen, with the ponds’ pollution separated from the Waccamaw River only by earthen berms that the utility’s critics say could fail in the event of an earthquake or flood.

Three groups – Winyah Riverkeepers Foundation Inc., the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy – filed a lawsuit against Santee Cooper in June 2012, asking a judge to find the utility in violation of the state’s Pollution Control Act. The groups wanted Santee Cooper to clean up contaminated groundwater beneath the ash ponds and move the ponds themselves to a lined industrial waste landfill located away from the Waccamaw River.

“It is not acceptable for any corporation, public or private, to burden future citizens and taxpayers with this serious threat to public health and the environment,” Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League, said at the time.

Santee Cooper fought the lawsuit and in March 2013 submitted its plan to encase the ash ponds in concrete to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Two months later, the Conway City Council unanimously adopted a resolution opposing any plan to leave the ash ponds in place. The council’s decision followed a public hearing hosted by DHEC in which speakers overwhelmingly demanded that the ash ponds be removed.

Ultimately, Santee Cooper relented in November when it struck a deal with SEFA and others to recycle ash from the ponds at Grainger, Jefferies and Winyah. That decision led to a settlement agreement with environmentalists, who dropped their lawsuit but will remain a part of the monitoring process at Grainger until all of the coal ash is removed.

“The Conway community is delighted,” Conway Mayor Alys Lawson said when the agreement was announced. “We think it was the right decision.”

Santee Cooper now downplays the impact the environmentalists’ lawsuit had on the utility’s decision to move Grainger’s ash ponds.

“We would have done this regardless of the suit,” said Gore, the utility’s spokeswoman. Gore said Santee Cooper had been working all along to line up companies willing to recycle ash from its facilities.

“The key to going public was getting the signed contracts,” Gore said. “When we shared with them [environmental groups] what we’re going to do, they dropped the suit.”

Cave, with the Coastal Conservation League, called the utility’s attempts to minimize the lawsuit “disingenuous.” Frank Holleman, a lawyer with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the utility only agreed to come to the table and discuss an alternative plan because of the legal pressure his and other groups applied.

“If Santee Cooper had planned to remove the coal ash, then why was removal not part of their [original] closure plan?” Cave said. “Over the years, Santee Cooper has demonstrated that the best interests of the community come second to the bottom line.”

Re-use for community benefit

The terms “ash pond” and “wet ash” are somewhat misnomers for Grainger, where the slurry mixture of water and coal waste have for the most part dried over the years to form a solid, earthen foundation that can be walked and even driven upon. Deer and other wildlife have made their homes on pond property. Vegetation, including grass and trees, which grows throughout the pond areas has to be removed from the excavated ash before it can be sold to concrete manufacturers.

“That’s the biggest problem we have – handling all the vegetation,” Kierspe said, adding that some will be used for biomass while smaller plants will be piled up to become compost.

The oldest pond, referred to as Pond A, will be excavated and removed first, followed by the newer Pond B. Once the ash is excavated it is stacked on-site to dry, then screened and distributed. So far, 20,000 tons of coal ash have been shipped from the Grainger site to manufacturers.

When the ash is finally gone, the property will be restored to its original condition, which is mostly wetlands.

Next door to the ponds, asbestos removal recently was completed within the electricity generating building. Gore said Santee Cooper has received an unsolicited bid from an unnamed company interested in purchasing the building. The deadline for a final decision on that purchase is later this month. Regardless of what happens, the building eventually will be removed from the property.

“If they don’t dismantle it, we will,” Gore said. “It’s not going to sit here.”

It’s not clear what the future holds for the Grainger site – adjacent to the river and the Conway Marina – and its Lake Busbee companion.

“With the marina next door, I know Conway would like to see this develop into something beneficial for the town,” Kierspe said. “This facility has been here since 1966 and Santee Cooper has always had a good relationship not only with Conway but wherever we are. We’re going to do what we can that’s best for everyone involved.”

Conway Mayor Alys Lawson said the city and Santee Cooper are working with regulators to keep Lake Busbee open.

“The location of the lake has a tremendous visual impact to the Conway community as well as visitors to the Grand Strand,” Lawson said. “Our community also uses the lake for recreational activities. We are interested in partnering with the Waccamaw Wildlife Refuge to further develop trails and to create an educational urban forest environment and maintain water levels.”

Lawson said the proximity of Coastal Carolina University to the lake also could provide a much-desired bike and pedestrian connection to downtown Conway.

DHEC is waiting on results of water and sediment testing at Lake Busbee before deciding what, if any, further action Santee Cooper must take and whether the lake can remain.

A long-term plan for the electric plant site is still in the early stages, Lawson said, but the city’s riverwalk and historic downtown area likely will play a role in whatever eventually is built there.

“Santee Cooper has agreed to help developer a master plan of the area,” Lawson said. “Economic development and job creation is a key goal of the plan.”