It’s hard to believe now but years ago two large pits were dug in wetlands next to the Waccamaw River in Conway. These pits were used to dispose of coal ash waste from Santee Cooper’s Grainger generating plant, and today they hold 650,000 tons of coal ash waste containing, among other pollutants, the toxin arsenic.
These pits are not lined. Chemicals from the coal ash waste have leached into the underlying groundwater and have polluted it. These pits are located within the floodplain of the Waccamaw River. Only earthen dikes made of clay and silty soil separate the coal ash from the river. When the river is high, it partially submerges the dikes. During Hurricane Floyd in 1999, the lagoons were actually under water. We are just one breach away from the catastrophe that occurred at a TVA facility, its adjacent river and nearby communities.
Now Santee Cooper has announced that it will close the Grainger plant. But what will happen to the coal ash pits? Coal ash contains arsenic. Arsenic is toxic and is known to cause cancer. The groundwater there is contaminated with arsenic. Just this past year, it has tested at 300 times the water quality limit for arsenic, and it has repeatedly tested at hundreds of times the limit. The groundwater flows into the Waccamaw River, and arsenic has been found in the river too. Santee Cooper has known about this arsenic contamination for many years. In 2009, the Department of Health and Environmental Control found that Santee Cooper had violated the S.C. Pollution Control Act by discharging arsenic into the environment without a permit.
So what has Santee Cooper done to remove the arsenic-containing coal ash from beside the Waccamaw to a lined landfill away from the river? Believe it or not, it has done nothing. Alarmingly, in preliminary materials submitted to DHEC, Santee Cooper has indicated that it plans to leave the coal ash in the unlined pits beside the Waccamaw forever, near the Conway City Marina and upstream of intakes for our community’s drinking water supplies and our local treasure, the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge.
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Compare this to the plan by South Carolina Electric and Gas. SCE&G recently announced that it will empty lagoons on the Wateree River near Columbia containing 2.4 million tons of coal ash and move the coal ash to a lined landfill away from the Wateree River. If SCE&G can do that for the Wateree and the Columbia area, why won’t Santee Cooper do the same thing for Conway and the Waccamaw River?
I am outraged, and you should be too. That’s why we have joined with the S.C. Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in a lawsuit filed on our behalf by the Southern Environmental Law Center asking that Santee Cooper be required to clean up its mess and move its toxic coal ash to a lined landfill where it will be properly contained and away from the Waccamaw River.
Our community and the Waccamaw River deserves better than this. Let Santee Cooper know that it needs to take care of its waste and the pollution caused by it. Otherwise, our Waccamaw River and the communities that rely on it will continue to be polluted by Santee Cooper’s toxic coal ash waste.
The writer is the Waccamaw Riverkeeper.