Pawleys Island, S.C. — Waccamaw Riverkeeper Christine Ellis says contamination from a coal-fired power plant in Conway could be adding arsenic and other poisons into the source of some drinking water, and the state is not enforcing laws to control the contamination.
That is why the Waccamaw Riverkeeper organization is involved in a lawsuit against S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), to force them to issue a new permit for pools used to store coal ash, a process DHEC said would help cut down on pollution in the river and give the public a voice in the process.
The suit filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center seeks to force DHEC to issue a Clean Water Act permit for discharges from the lagoons near Santee Cooper’s Grainger Generating Station into the Waccamaw River.
“The Waccamaw River is one of our state’s great natural resources,” Ellis said. “It is a shame that DHEC is not protecting the public and the River, and that DHEC is not working to prevent Santee Cooper’s pollution.”
Grainger’s two coal-fired units began commercial production in 1966 — making it Santee Cooper’s oldest coal-fired station — and produce more than 170 megawatts of electricity an hour, according to the utility.
The utility — which stores 650,000 tons of coal ash in earthen lagoons on the banks of the Waccamaw — has, along with DHEC, known for years that the pools are polluting the river and nearby groundwater with chemicals including arsenic, mercury and copper, the environmental groups say.
Santee Cooper’s permit for the lagoons expired in 2006. Since then, the lawsuit says DHEC has let the plant use old technology that continues to pollute the river.
By not issuing a new permit, the lawsuit also says the public hasn’t been given a voice in the matter, since a permitting process would involve taking public comment.
Ellis said that near the 40th anniversary of the federal government’s passing of the Clean Water Act on Oct. 8, 1972, it is sad that the law is being ignored by the state agency responsible for protecting our rivers.
“It is very disappointing that DHEC has not followed their requirements of the Clean Water Act to issue a permit,” Ellis said. “They let the whole 5-year permit cycle lapse.”
She added that this area will suffer if further contamination of the Waccamaw River is allowed.
“Even though the plant is in Horry County, the Waccamaw River is an important asset for us, especially for tourism,” Ellis said.
“Since we have a tourism economy, we rely on our rivers and beaches to help generate the economy. Sullying the Waccamaw River, which we use as a source for our drinking water, does not bode well for our future.”
DHEC officials said the agency had not been served with the lawsuit and could not comment.
The Southern Environmental Law Center represents several groups, including the Waccamaw Riverkeeper and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Other environmental groups have also sued Santee Cooper, accusing the utility of failing to get state permits for groundwater contamination under and near the coal ash lagoons.
Santee Cooper spokeswoman Mollie Gore said the state-owned utility has filed to renew its permit and has not asked DHEC to delay that process. Gore also said the utility has asked a judge to dismiss the case against Santee Cooper and is waiting on a hearing date.
The Grainger power plant is not currently operating and may be closed permanently if it’s determined to be too expensive to bring it in line to comply with new federal regulations, Gore said.
By Clayton Stairs
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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