December 22, 2014

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.

Study panel warns better pay and benefits needed to avoid teacher shortage

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, led the study committee (File/SCETV)

Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, led the study committee (File/SCETV)

A state Senate panel is warning that South Carolina will need to do a lot more to recruit and keep teachers over the next decade — especially in rural areas.

The Select Committee on Public School Teachers reached consensus on several recommendations earlier this week. Those recommendations are not binding, but will be sent to the Senate Finance Committee. It would be up to the full General Assembly and Governor Nikki Haley to include the proposals in the state budget or new legislation.

The recommendations include expanding a college loan forgiveness program and boosting salaries. Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said trends seem to indicate that teachers are more likely to stay in the field once they reach five years of experience. But many leave within two or three years. He said it appears pay may be the most important factor in their decision.

“Salary is, of course, a big part particularly for new teachers and young teachers,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “They often come out of college with heavy debt. The pay makes a huge difference to them.”

According to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA), about 2,000 students graduate from South Carolina colleges with education majors each year. But the group says that is not nearly enough to meet the usual 4,000 openings in South Carolina’s school districts. The group said the difference is made up through out-of-state teachers, who are much less likely to remain in South Carolina for the long term.

Hayes warns the problem is only going to get worse, especially in rural areas. “With the Baby Boomers aging out, we’re going to face a teacher shortage all over the state soon. And an administrator shortage. A principal shortage.”

The study panel is also asking officials to examine teacher mentoring programs and other initiatives that would work to keep homegrown teachers in rural or poor districts. Hayes noted that wealthier, suburban school districts and private schools are often able to entice teachers with  larger paychecks financed through higher property tax revenue than rural districts can collect.

“If you can get teachers that come from these hard-to-serve areas and have family in those areas, the likelihood that they’ll go back and live there permanently is much better than just trying to attract a teacher with no roots in those areas at all,” he said.

The panel did not estimate  the cost for its general recommendations.


Former Marine ruled insane after stealing fire truck, killing pedestrian

Naval Hospital Beaufort (Image: US Navy)

Naval Hospital Beaufort (Image: US Navy)

A former Marine who escaped from the Naval Hospital Beaufort wearing only his boxer shorts, stole a fire truck, and then used it to strike and kill a pedestrian has been found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The Beaufort Gazette reports that Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen issued the ruling Thursday in the case of 28-year-old Kalvin Hunt of Sumter. Hunt had been charged with murder and numerous other counts in the death of 28-year-old Justin Miller. Psychiatrists have diagnosed Hunt with paranoid schizophrenia. He is now at a secure state Department of Mental Health facility, the newspaper reports.

Investigators said Hunt had been taken to the naval hospital for evaluation on February 24, 2012 by a Beaufort County Veterans Affairs officer after Hunt’s mother expressed concerns about his well-being. At some point, Hunt escaped from hospital personnel and fled the grounds. The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office said Hunt eventually came across a Port Royal Fire Department truck that was responding to a call at a nearby apartment complex. He got into the truck and drove off, later striking six other cars and running down Miller while the other man walked along Ribaut Road, prosecutors said. Hunt then crashed in a wooded area.

The judge said a new hearing and judicial decision would be held if Hunt is ever recommended for release. He was dishonorably discharged from the Marines not long after the incident.

A lawsuit was filed last year against the naval hospital and Hunt by another driver whose SUV was hit by the fire truck.

Unemployment rate holds steady in SC, but more entering workforce

workerSouth Carolina’s unemployment rate remained at 6.7 percent in November, as the state Department of Employment and Workforce (SCDEW) reports more people found jobs at roughly the same rate others started looking.

The monthly data released on Friday showed a record-high labor force of nearly 2.198 million people either who were either part of the workforce or looking for work. The workforce grew by more than 5,560 people since October, according to SCDEW. At the same time, roughly 5,900 more people were listed as employed in November from a month earlier.

November’s numbers did halt what had been four consecutive months of increases in the unemployment rate as more people began looking for work since the rate was 5.3 percent in June. Roughly 28,500 more people were listed as employed in November compared to the same month in 2013. At the same time, the number of people listed as unemployed dropped by just 1,100.

The biggest increases from October to November came in Professional and Business Services as well as Leisure and Hospitality, according to SCDEW. The Construction sector and the Education and Health Services industry both had slight decreases during the same span.

Marion County still has the state’s highest unemployment rate at 11.6 percent. Greenville, Lexington and Saluda counties all tied for the lowest rates at 5.2 percent.

SC congressional delegation vows to block president on Cuba

Congressman Jeff Duncan (File)

Congressman Jeff Duncan (File)

Republicans are threatening to block efforts by President Obama to reopen the American embassy in Cuba as the U.S. thaws relations with the island nation.

Congressional Republicans say they could take advantage of their new Senate control by refusing to approve a new ambassador or set aside funding for the embassy.

That includes South Carolina’s Third District Congressman Jeff Duncan, who will now chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. “We all have a like mind that the administration got this one wrong,” he told Greenwood affiliate WCRS, adding that it would require Congress to take some actions. “They still have to get funding for an embassy. They still have to get an ambassador confirmed by the Senate. That ain’t going to happen. A lot of this is just for optics.”

Both of South Carolina’s senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott echoed Duncan. “Normalizing relations with Cuba is a bad idea at a bad time,” Graham tweeted on Wednesday, vowing to block any funding that would reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana. Scott added that he was glad to see American hostage Alan Gross released as part of the deal, but added that he was concerned the president was rewarding Cuba for decades of human rights abuses.

Duncan said he thinks the U.S. should have gotten much more out of the agreement besides the release of a hostage. “This administration has done a terrible job negotiating on this deal,” he told WCRS. “America got nothing, other than the ability to bring some Cuban cigars back when you travel to Havana.”

Fourth District Congressman Trey Gowdy told Greenville affiliate WORD News that his issue was the president acting unilaterally. “He’s doing it intentionally where the voters would never have a chance to rebuke him,” he told WORD’s Vince Coakley. “If he’s so right about it… then he needs to face the voters.”

At least one GOP congressman went against his colleagues. First District Congressman Mark Sanford said he supports the deal. “(U.S.) Cuba travel policy was inconsistent with our country’s founding principle of individual liberty and the freedom of movement that should come with it,” Sanford said in an email to news organizations. “In fact with the exception of Cuba, we are allowed to travel to any country in the world. Think about that. Americans could travel to Iran, North Korea or Syria, but not Cuba fifty miles off our coast?”

Besides embassy funding, Congress would also need to approve ending the trade embargo that bans US companies from importing or exporting to Cuba.