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.