January 24, 2015

With new agreement, all SC utilities committed to cleaning up coal ash

W.S. Lee Steam Station (Image: Duke Energy)

W.S. Lee Steam Station (Image: Duke Energy)

With Duke Energy’s announcement last week that it will remove 3.2 million tons of coal ash from ponds at its W.S. Lee power plant in Anderson County, all of South Carolina’s power utilities now have plans in place to dispose of the toxic coal byproducts that have been stored in water for decades.

Coal ash is leftover material from the coal-burning process that includes toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead. It is often mixed with water and stored in manmade ponds located near a coal plant. The metals eventually sink to the bottom of the pond and slowly accumulate.

Environmental groups had pressured the utilities to move the ash for more than two years, arguing that the current method of storage risks leaks and ecological disaster if the dams holding back the ponds were to ever fail. The groups began targeting the ponds after a dike burst at a Tennessee power plant in 2008, covering more than 300 acres with the toxic sludge. Six years later, ash seeped through a broken pipe and out to a river at a Duke Energy plant in North Carolina this past February.

“South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast that has moved this far along in protecting our rivers and communities from coal ash pollution,” Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) senior attorney Frank Holleman told South Carolina Radio Network. He credited efforts by the “Riverkeeper”-aligned  conservation groups and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

SELC has been the primary organization leading the effort against coal ash ponds, instead calling on utilities to place the coal ash in “dry storage,” or landfills that are lined to keep the metals from getting into groundwater. The first utility the group sued in 2012 — South Carolina Electric & Gas (SCE&G) — reached a settlement that would remove 240,000 tons of ash from a coal plant that sits along the Wateree River near Eastover.

Holleman said the group was not planning to eradicate the ponds at the time — just to target those sites it viewed as an environmental hazard.

“As we did the research, went through the documents and actually examined the rivers and wetlands around the different locations, what we discovered is every site had similar problems,” Holleman said.

The next year, a similar lawsuit led state-owned utility Santee Cooper’s to voluntarily remove 1.3 million tons from a shuttered plant in Conway that borders the Waccamaw River. Santee Cooper also pledged similar cleanups at its other coal facilities around the state. Both SCE&G and the state-owned utility plan to move the waste into dry storage, as well as recycle some of the material for use in concrete (ash can be used as a substitute for Portland cement).

Duke Energy had been the last remaining utility in South Carolina that was still planning to keep its ash ponds indefinitely. That changed with last week’s agreement to remove ash from the Lee Steam Station in Williamston.

“The… basins are not ideal long-term locations to house the ash because of the work that would be needed to upgrade those areas for future storage,” Duke senior vice president for ash strategy John Elnitsky said in a statement.

There are 22 coal ash ponds in South Carolina at 14 different sites. The utilities estimate it will take up to 10 years to remove all of the material. There are other ash ponds around the state that are not operated by utilities and thus are not affected by the lawsuits, such as a former coal reactor at the Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site near Aiken.

Court rules against disputed Kiawah beach project

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

SC Supreme Court building in Columbia (File)

The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against granting approval for developers to build an extensive seawall at Kiawah Island. The ruling is the latest in a dispute between a real estate developer and environmentalists that has lasted for years.

The justices agreed in a 3-2 decision that a bulkhead should not be built at Captain Sam’s Spit, which the island’s developer says is needed to stop erosion on the thin strip of land. The Spit is surrounded by the marshy Kiawah River to its north and west and the Atlantic Ocean to its southeast. Kiawah Development Partners is eyeing the potential real estate on the western end of the Spit, but a road would have to be built out there first. The company has said it needs the seawall to be approved for that to happen.

Friends of the Kiawah River President Sidi Limehouse said he is glad their fight to stop the development is over. “It’s a very important piece, the only piece left on the immediate coast that can be saved. We have our work cut out for us, again. But at least it can’t be developed now,” he told South Carolina Radio Network after the ruling.

In 2008, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) permitted only 270 of the 2,513 feet that Kiawah was seeking for the wall. DHEC officials said they were concerned that the wall would interfere with the natural erosion along the river and that it would clear the way for new homes in the inlet’s fragile sand dunes. The agency must give its approval for any construction along a coastal shoreline.

This image shows the narrow Captain Sam's Spit shows the Kiawah River to the north and Atlantic Ocean to the South

This image of the narrow Captain Sam’s Spit shows the Kiawah River to the north and Atlantic Ocean to the South

The developers appealed to an Administrative Law Court judge, who reversed DHEC’s decision on the condition that Kiawah agree to make some alterations. DHEC and the Coastal Conservation League appealed the decision, arguing the judge did not have the authority to modify environmental permits. The Supreme Court initially agreed with them in November 2011, but then sided with Kiawah last year. However, the court agreed to rehear the case a third time just three months later.

Limehouse said he is delighted that his group’s hard work paid off. “Of course I am very happy it turned out in our favor, you know we’ve had a long struggle. With that we’ve been through all the courts, all the court battles. It looks like we finally prevailed and now we’ve got work ahead of us.” Limehouse said.

Writing for the majority, Justices Kay Hearn said lower courts did not factor in whether the bulkhead would ensure “maximum public benefit,” as coast law requires. “It was clear that only the developer, not the public, would benefit from the construction of this enormous bulkhead and revetment,” she wrote.

“Captain Sam’s Spit and the public tidelands along its margins are of great importance to the people of South Carolina,” the court said. “The tidelands present a bounty of benefits to the people ranging from environmental to recreational. Unlike much of our state’s coastline which is now armored and unnatural, the spit remains untouched by human alteration. The area, particularly the pristine sandy beach, is undoubtedly one of this state’s natural treasures.”

However Chief Justice Jean Toal disagreed, saying the lower Administrative Law Court judge reached a reasonable decision after reviewing more than 2,800 pages of documents related to the case. “With the best of intentions, the majority’s view of deference to the opinions of an agency bureaucracy on not only facts but also on the agency’s interpretation of statutory law fundamentally undermines South Carolina’s longstanding approach to controlling unrestrained bureaucratic decisions regarding private property rights,” she wrote.

Environmental regulators side with proposed Kershaw gold mine

Map of the Haile Gold Mine site (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Map of the Haile Gold Mine site (Image: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

State environmental regulators have rejected a challenge to a proposed gold mine in Lancaster County.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control board turned down an an appeal by the Sierra Club, the agency said Monday. The State newspaper reports the board sided with a permit for Canadian firm Romarco Minerals Inc., to reactivate and expand an existing mine into the largest of its type east of the Mississippi River.

The 4,552-acre Haile Gold Mine project near the town of Kershaw (roughly halfway between Charlotte, NC, and Florence, SC) was approved by federal regulators in October. The Sierra Club challenged the permit, saying the $60 million that state officials have required Romarco to set aside is not enough for a environmental cleanup after mining activities finish. Romarco insists $60 million is plenty for the site. The Sierra Club is now considering an appeal to the state mining council.

The permit decision by the Army Corps of Engineers followed a three-year environmental study and project review which examined the predicted impact on wetlands, streams, and groundwater drawdown as mine pits are excavated and dewatered during mining. The study estimated 120 acres of wetlands and 26,460 feet of streams would be directly impacted.

Most environmental groups dropped their objections to the project after Romarco agreed to acquire 4,388 acres of land along the Lynches and Wateree River watersheds and donate their ownership to the South Carolina Heritage Trust Program. Those tracts include two in Richland County and one in Lancaster County.

Romarco has said it would freeze hiring at the site until the legal action was complete.

Media mogul’s $3.3 million donation creates new wetlands center at Clemson

The Baruch Institute in Georgetown County, which will host the new conservation center (Image: Clemson)

The Baruch Institute in Georgetown County, which will host the new conservation center (Image: Clemson)

Clemson University says it will use a $3.3 million gift from a media and auto executive to establish a waterfowl and wetlands research center along the coast.

The university said Tuesday that Cox Enterprises Chairman James Kennedy had endowed a new conservation center in Georgetown and Beaufort counties. The Kennedy Waterfowl and Wetlands Conservation Center will be the only endowed center of its kind on the Atlantic coast, the school said. South Carolina is a winter home for many duck species that migrate from Canada and nest in coastal wetlands.

“What makes South Carolina unique is that we have a lot of these wetlands systems that are, compared to other areas, pretty much intact,” the school’s Natural Resources Division chair Greg Yarrow said. “It allows us to build upon that.”

A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study released last year estimated the amount of coastal wetlands nationwide declined by nearly 361,000 acres from 2004 to 2009. The decline is 25 percent faster than the previous study period from 1998 to 2004.

“My first duck hunting experience was in the South Carolina Lowcountry and it was life-changing,” Kennedy said in a statement. “With this gift, I hope to ensure that future generations have waterfowl and wetlands to enjoy, and that we continue to produce young people with a passion to study and steward these important natural resources for years to come.”

The endowment will fund fellowships for doctoral and graduate-level students, undergraduate student fellows and other internships. Funds also will be used to educate landowners and managers through an outreach program, the school said.

The center will be located at the existing Baruch Institute for Coastal Ecology and Forest Service in Georgetown County and at the Nemours Wildlife Foundation in Beaufort. Yarrow noted the locations are purposely close to Winyah Bay and the ACE Basin preserve, respectively, two of the largest undeveloped coastal tracts along the Eastern Seaboard.

New campaign to stress economic benefit of recycling

A statewide campaign is gearing up to promote the economic and environmental benefits of recycling.

The public-private effort known as RecycleMoreSC is a call to action challenging residents, businesses, organizations and local governments to do their part to recycle more.

Richard Chesley, a manager in the DHEC Office of Solid Waste said a study released this past spring by the College of Charleston shows that recycling has a $13 million impact on the state’s economy. Chesley said the campaign’s goal is to reach a 40 percent recycling rate by the year 2020.

“We have two of the state’s largest recycling in Sonoco and Pratt that need material,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “And this campaign that we’re putting together is aimed at recovering more material.”

Along with DHEC, Pratt Industries and Sonoco Recycling, the campaign includes the South Carolina Beverage Association, Palmetto Pride, and the State Department of Commerce.

Chesley said more than 50,000 direct and indirect jobs are associated with the recycling industry and more and more consumers are beginning to realize that recycling is a good practice not only for the environment, but also for the present and future economic climate of the state.

DHEC promotes recycling as a three-step process that begins and ends with each consumer. Chesley said the first step is for consumers to practice recycling at home and at the workplace. “The second step is this material gets processed into new raw materials and then are made into new products,” he added. “The third step is for each of us to buy, when feasible and practical, recycle content products.”

Chesley said recycling, like any other business enterprise, is market-driven, which means that some materials have significantly more value than others.

“Glass is very heavy and very corrosive on recycling equipment, and also expensive to move. Plastic is light and has very little value, so you have to have a lot of it to have any value at all and to move it. The flip side of that is that aluminum, newspaper, office paper, and cardboard have high value.”

Visit Recyclemoresc.org for more information.