DHEC Will Issue New Permit to Replace Long-Expired Permit for Santee Cooper Coal Ash Ponds
Conservation groups represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center have secured DHEC’s binding commitment to issue a new water pollution control permit to replace the old permit that expired almost 7 years ago at Santee Cooper’s Grainger plant in Conway, S.C. This agreement with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control resolves a lawsuit over DHEC’s decision to allow the coal ash lagoons at Santee Cooper’s Grainger Generating Station in Conway to continue discharging under an old permit that expired almost seven years ago. The new permit is scheduled to be issued by August 30, 2013.
The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the suit for the Waccamaw Riverkeeper and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy in September of last year to force the agency to put in place a modern permit that provides more protection for the Waccamaw River and the Conway community. In 2008, DHEC drafted a new permit with more stringent limits for arsenic, mercury, copper, and other pollutants. But after Santee Cooper objected, DHEC deferred to Santee Cooper and never issued the new permit or made it available to the public.
Because the new permit was not issued, the public never had an opportunity to comment on the permit, and Santee Cooper continued to pollute the Waccamaw River without limits on key pollutants. The Conservation Groups brought the suit also to ensure that the public, including people living in the Conway area, have a role in controlling Santee Cooper’s pollution.
“This agreement provides an opportunity to impose limits on Santee Cooper’s pollution and gives the people of Conway and South Carolina a voice in how pollution from Santee Cooper’s coal ash lagoons will be regulated going forward,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “After almost seven years, finally the Waccamaw River and Conway will have a chance to get the protection they deserve”
DHEC moved to dismiss the lawsuit in November, arguing it had no duty to act on Santee Cooper’s renewal application for the permit. A Richland County judge denied that motion in February, allowing the case to proceed. Under the Clean Water Act, discharge permits must be reissued every five years to ensure up-to-date standards and pollution controls, and to allow the public to review, comment on, and potentially contest permits when they are issued. But Santee Cooper has operated under the current permit for over a decade without public scrutiny.
“DHEC asked Santee Cooper whether it wanted an updated permit years ago, and Santee Cooper said ‘no thanks,’” said Waccamaw Riverkeeper Christine Ellis. “It’s about time Santee Cooper was required to obey the law and that the Waccamaw River was protected from toxic coal ash pollution.”
Under the settlement agreement, DHEC will issue a draft permit for public comment by August 30, pending EPA approval. “We fully expect that the new permit will include stricter, modern pollution controls to better protect Conway and South Carolina’s environment,” said Ulla Reeves of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
The agreement resolves one of three pending lawsuits related to arsenic contamination at Grainger; the other two suits are against Santee Cooper itself.
Santee Cooper has shuttered the Grainger plant and recently proposed a plan to leave the ash in Conway permanently. That plan was subjected to harsh critiques by Conway residents at a public hearing in April, and the Conway City Council unanimously adopted a resolution asking DHEC to reject Santee Cooper’s plan and to require complete removal of the coal ash and contaminated soil.
“We hope Santee Cooper will follow DHEC’s lead, resolve the existing litigation, and respond to overwhelming public opinion by agreeing to remove the arsenic and coal ash from Conway’s wetlands and store it safely in a lined, dry landfill,” said Holleman.
Santee Cooper has dumped 1.3 million tons of coal ash into unlined pits in the swamp next to the Waccamaw River in the heart of Conway. The coal ash has discharged arsenic in concentrations has high as 3,228 parts per billion, over 300 times the legal limit of 10 ppb. The contaminated ground water flows into the Waccamaw River.
A suit against South Carolina Electric & Gas, brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, was settled last summer when SCE&G agreed to remove all 2.4 million tons of coal ash from its lagoons on the Wateree River in lower Richland County. Recently, DHEC has also required SCE&G to remove coal tar from the Congaree River in Columbia, and SCE&G has agreed to do so.
The Waccamaw RIVERKEEPER® is a program of Winyah Rivers Foundation, a non-profit environmental organization whose mission is to protect, preserve, monitor and revitalize the health of the lands and waters of the greater Winyah Bay watershed. Our goal is to protect our community’s right to fishable, swimmable and drinkable water. We pursue this goal through education and advocacy programs in support of our mission to protect our river resources. These programs are developed and implemented to increase the scientific literacy of our community, including local decision makers, and to engage them in environmental stewardship and planning for river resource protections.
Founded in 1985, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy is a nonprofit organization that promotes responsible energy choices that create global warming solutions and ensure clean, safe, and healthy communities throughout the Southeast. Learn more at www.cleanenergy.org.