News | October 5, 2023

SELC icon Frank Holleman on years of combatting coal ash

Frank is standing in a nice, dark suit and blue tie with his hands folded at his waist. He is looking serious.
Holleman is the nation’s leading coal ash litigator. (@Stephanie Gross)

Frank Holleman has done a lot of good. 

Leading SELC’s historic coal ash work as a senior attorney and litigator is just the latest chapter in a long career built on improving communities and protecting the environment. 

Before joining the organization in 2011 — where he has led an effort that has resulted in regional utilities excavating more than a quarter billion tons of coal ash and counting — Holleman had already served as the No. 2 leader of the U.S. Department of Education, helped found South Carolina’s early childhood initiative, served as deputy assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, and clerked for Justice Harry A. Blackmun at the U.S. Supreme Court. 

He has been to every single coal ash site SELC has litigated, and even discovered a large alligator living in one of them. He also thinks quite fondly of vanilla ice cream. Holleman grew up in, and has for decades lived in, South Carolina’s Upstate. 

We are very excited to share that Holleman was recently elected as a fellow to the American College of Environmental Lawyers for his substantial contributions to the field of environmental law. Read the interview and learn more about an SELC icon. 

Be honest, are you our country’s leading coal ash expert? 

I’m sure I’ve been involved in more litigation on coal ash than anyone else in the country at this point. 

Holleman testifying in a coal ash case that went all the way to the U.S. Senate.

What did SELC’s early coal ash work look like compared to now? 

When I came to SELC in 2011, there was an existing dispute in South Carolina over the location of a proposed coal ash landfill in the ACE Basin. A local zoning board decided not to allow it to be built where it was proposed, and that decision was on appeal to the courts when former SELC Attorney Blan Holman handed that project off to me and I represented local groups in that appeal. A few months later, we applied for and received a grant from the Education Foundation of America to do coal ash work, and SELC asked me to lead the effort. 

When we started, utilities were all using open pits to dispose of their toxic-laden coal ash. They were dumping millions of gallons a day of pollution from those sites into our region’s waterways. Now, not one utility in our region is putting one ounce of coal ash in any unlined pit. So far, utilities in the Southeast have excavated more than a quarter billion tons of old coal ash that contaminated many of the region’s major rivers and lakes. 

If not for SELC, do you think other environmental groups would have picked up the slack on coal ash work? 

The answer to that question is unquestionably no. We had the terrible Kingston spill in 2008, and by 2011-2012, the federal government had yet to do anything about it. State governments also did nothing, and the utilities had not done anything to clean up their acts. And then in 2014, another coal ash spill happened on the banks of the Dan River in North Carolina. It was really the pressure we brought on the utilities, beginning in South Carolina, through direct enforcement actions, that caused a change in coal ash storage and a phenomenal reduction in coal ash pollution throughout our region. And we’re still fighting the battle today. 

Protect Alabama’s water from toxic coal ash.

How was it working on the Kinder Morgan pipeline spill in December 2014?  

Three people in rain boots stand in a muddy section of the forest and point towards the ground.
Holleman (center) examines water for potential pollution from a Kinder Morgan pipeline spill in Belton, South Carolina, in 2014.

I knew the Kinder Morgan spill had occurred within 40 miles of where I live and had assumed it was being taken care of. One day there was an article about it in the local paper, and I thought we should look further into it. We learned Kinder Morgan was not taking the actions the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control urged it to take. We went to inspect the site in Belton and discovered it was still being polluted from the spill.  

We initiated a Clean Water Act suit on behalf of Upstate Forever and Savannah Riverkeeper that resulted in Kinder Morgan having to put a set of extensive measures in place to deal with the spill. The litigation and the collective work of the two organizations and SELC resulted in a more extensive cleanup on the site. Ultimately, our case went up and down to the U.S. Supreme Court, created new precedent in the Fourth Circuit, and finally resulted in a $1.5 million fund for public education and water quality work in the watershed. 

You had a ton of remarkable work experience before coming to SELC in 2011. What left the largest impact on you?  

Probably the most memorable period of my career is the five years I spent as the Chief of Staff and then Deputy Secretary to the U.S. Secretary of Education. That was a really exciting time because we were in a position to have tremendous impact on education for people throughout the country. We worked on a major reform of the student loan program and created the Direct Student Loan Program, which saved students and the government billions of dollars and also made it easier and cheaper to access education. We reduced the fees on student loans, reduced interest rates, reduced the default rate, and also made it easier to repay and ultimately get forgiveness on those loans. 

In those four years, we really dealt with every aspect of education policy, including helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds get to college in the first place. 

Holleman with Cherokee Bear Clan Chief James Nichols. The two worked together on the Save Stumphouse effort that prevented a historic and natural resource in Oconee from being turned into a real estate development in 2010.

You’ve helped a lot of people. What drives you to do that? 

I’ve always had the missionary urge, although I’ve spent most of my work career in the private sector and the private practice of law. I’ve always wanted to be involved in efforts to improve the community and protect the environment. With those goals in mind, I’ve tried as best as I could, given all the other requirements of life. 

What sparked your interest in nature and the environment? 

As a small child, we lived on the edge of town and there was a lot of bird life in the old cotton fields behind our house. I spent a lot of time wandering out there and in the woods. When I was a young guy in the late 60s and early 70s, that was when the environmental movement really started. I soon became a member of the Audubon Society and other national groups. 

Favorite Southern bird? 

My favorite southern bird is the probably the Carolina parakeet, which doesn’t exist anymore, or the ivory-billed woodpecker, which may exist – but of those I have seen, my favorite right now is the eastern bluebird because we have them nesting in our backyard. 

Favorite Southern food? 

Oh heavens, my two favorite foods you might call Southern are vanilla ice cream and watermelon. 

Best place to get outside in the South? 

Apart from SELC, I am deeply, actively involved in land conservation in South Carolina and in the upstate, in particular. Some of my favorite places to visit right now are the areas we have helped protect and restore. Outside of the South, I love to go bird watching in southeast Arizona. 

What’s your best advice for the folks fighting to stop climate change and make the environment safer for everyone? 

Groups of people who take action can change reality for the better, even against the most powerful, richest, and most politically-connected institutions in our society. Stand up, speak out, and show up. We’re not going to have change unless we force it. 

Holleman enjoying a hike in South Carolina’s Upstate region.