Environmental groups sue Santee Cooper over Grainger coal ash

The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) said June 7 that it has filed suit to stop arsenic contamination of the Waccamaw River and groundwater at the coal-fired Grainger plant of Santee Cooper (officially known as the South Carolina Public Service Authority).

At the facility, Santee Cooper’s coal ash lagoons are unlined and store 650,000 tons of coal ash, the center said. The arsenic pollution enters the Waccamaw River upstream from intakes for public drinking water and upstream from the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, it added. The center filed suit on behalf of several groups – the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

“To stop contamination and prevent further risk to the environment, we’re asking that the coal ash be removed from beside the river, moved to a lined landfill away from wetlands and rivers, and stored in a safe, dry state,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “We hope to work with Santee Cooper to find a long-term solution that benefits nearby communities and the Waccamaw River.”

In 2009, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control found that the Grainger coal ash lagoons violated the South Carolina Pollution Control Act because of arsenic pollution of groundwater, the center said. Since that time, Santee Cooper has not taken steps to stop the arsenic pollution, and it has continued unabated, it added.

Santee Cooper’s coal ash lagoons are located so close to the banks of the Waccamaw River that it partially submerges the earthen dikes when water is high. The dikes consist of silty soil and soft clays that experts say may liquefy in an earthquake. If the dikes fail, tons of coal ash could discharge into the Waccamaw River, the center said. Since Santee Cooper idled the Grainger plant, it has begun to formulate plans to leave its unlined coal ash lagoons in place forever without effective resolution of contamination problems, the center said.

“We took this action because coal ash poses a significant threat to our rivers and the quality and health of our water,” said Dana Beach, director of the Coastal Conservation League. “We hope this complaint will lead to meaningful discussions with Santee Cooper and other utilities on alternative disposal of coal ash that has minimal impacts to our human and natural environment.”

Santee Cooper had issued no public statement on the lawsuit as of June 8. The Santee website said about the power plant in question: “The Grainger Generating Station is unique in that while it is operated by Santee Cooper, it is owned by Central Electric Power Cooperative. Columbia-based Central is Santee Cooper’s largest wholesale customer, sells power generated by Santee Cooper to the state’s 20 electric co-ops in all 46 counties. When Santee Cooper makes the final payment on Grainger early in the next decade, it will belong to Santee Cooper.” The plant’s two coal-fired units, producing 170 MW, began commercial operation in 1966.

Fitch Ratings said in a March report on Santee finances that a utility forecast assumes an April 1, 2016, retirement of Grainger (170 MW) and Jefferies Units 1-2 (92 MW) and retrofitting Jefferies Units 3-4 (306 MW). “However, these assumptions may be modified upon further review of existing and proposed regulations,” Fitch added.

Santee Cooper successfully recycles as much as 90% of combustion byproducts, the state-owned utility said on its website. “The remainder is kept in landfills that meet or exceed all regulations, including South Carolina’s strict regulations for industrial waste landfills,” Santee Cooper said.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.