Is Lake Busbee safe?
The state doesn’t know, and no one is planning on finding out.
The cost of maintaining the lake and a dispute between two state agencies sealed the fate of the iconic water body along Highway 501 in Conway.
Testing in 2014 revealed copper and arsenic in the sediment of the 330-acre former cooling pond for the former coal-burning Grainger Generating Station.
Those contaminates can be toxic to humans and are associated with coal-burning power plants.
Santee Cooper’s consultants said the lake was safe. The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control disagreed. State officials said whether the lake was safe or not was speculation without additional testing.
DHEC told Santee Cooper to clean it up, prove that it was safe or restrict human access. Santee Cooper, citing the costs associated with the lake, chose to restrict access.
Now the lake has been partially drained and the rest of the water will evaporate.
The money issue
While DHEC gave Santee Cooper the option of cleaning up the lake, the utility company decided to go a different route.
“Our customers end up paying for our operations, said Santee Cooper spokesperson Mollie Gore. “It comes down to our customers and what’s best for them.”
The lake holds 376.4 million gallons of water, and every year Santee Cooper would spend about $100,000 to pump in 1.9 billion gallons of water to maintain the water level in the lake, said Gore.
“Busbee was a cooling pond for the generating station which had always had restrictions on public use, and with the station’s retirement we knew we couldn’t justify spending the money to continue operating the cooling pond long-term,” she said. She added that Santee Cooper wanted to “get out of the lake business.”
But Santee Cooper had offered the lake up to the City of Conway, which declined to take on the property. The city council in December 2017 voted to not take over the lake, citing concerns about the contaminates.
“If it could be used recreationally it would have been a different discussion,” said Conway City Administrator Adam Emrick. “It’s certainly seen as a landmark. We see it time and time again that the community recognizes that lake as part of their identity.”
The dispute over safety
Documents obtained from a Freedom of Information Act show that Santee Cooper’s consultants believed the the lake was safe, saying that the arsenic posed no “significant human health or ecological exposure,” for future recreational or industrial uses.
But DHEC disagreed, using a different threshold to determine if the concentrations of arsenic in the lake’s sediment were safe.
“The department compared the arsenic concentrations in the pond sediments to an EPA residential risk-based screening level,” DHEC spokesperson Tommy Crosby said in a statement. “This is a very conservative approach and assumes the lake would be drained followed by long-term exposure to soil by a resident living there. Any other re-use with lower levels of exposure (e.g., recreational user) would pose far less risk.”
In an interview, Crosby said it was “speculation” whether or not the lake site was safe.
“There’s no evidence to say there’s risk one way or another,” said Ken Taylor, DHEC site assessment, remediation and revitalization director.
DHEC manager of industrial permitting Crystal Rippy said that based on the test results, the state in 2016 gave Santee Cooper the three options to do more studies to determine if it was safe, clean up the lake or restrict human access.
“They chose the third option to restrict access,” Rippy said.
The plan is to return the lake back to wetlands. Santee Cooper and DHEC have no plans for cleaning up the lake under the current closure plan. When the lake returns to wetlands, people will still be restricted from the site.
“That process is underway,” Gore said. “When that transition is complete, the property will be a visually appealing gateway between Conway and Myrtle Beach full of trees and other vegetation native to the area.”
Crosby said DHEC couldn’t force the cleanup on the lake.
“It is on private property and owned by Santee Cooper,” Crosby said. “Santee Cooper made the decision to revert the cooling pond back to natural wetlands under their own accord. It is DHEC’s responsibility to ensure that Santee Cooper’s actions within their decision meet all federal and state regulations.”