A new report released by an environmental group claims drinking water could be at risk for many in South Carolina because the state does not properly inspect how power companies dispose of coal waste.
Fly ash is a hazardous byproduct of coal power. At one point years ago, it was emitted into the atmosphere. However, health concerns and pollution laws forced power utilities to come up with other disposal methods. One way involves wetting the ash and transporting it by water into manmade “ponds.” The contaminated material falls to the bottom of the pond, while the water eventually evaporates.
However, in a report released last week, the clean energy group EarthJustice says the state does not properly inspect those ponds– increasing the possibility of a leak or even a dam failure, such as what happened in Kingston, Tennessee three years ago. In that case, 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry was released after a dam ruptured, destroying homes and flowing into nearby waterways, although no one was seriously hurt.
“South Carolina is certainly problematic in terms of the large threat posed by these very large dams,” Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans told SCRN, “These dams are not inspected regularly or required to have liners or monitoring.”
However, regulators and power utilities disputed that, saying there were inconsistencies in the report’s criteria.
“Those are false,” South Carolina Electric & Gas spokesman Robert Yanity said, “We are directed by the EPA… to monitor the integrity of our berms that hold the ash ponds and make sure they are structurally sound.”
The report says, while the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) has good standards for the ponds’ construction, officials have not inspected an existing pond for five years. There are 22 coal ash ponds in South Carolina at 14 different sites.
The ash has several toxic, cancer-causing materials in it, such as arsenic and cadmium. Although, it is safe as long as it’s stored at the bottoms of the ponds, Evans said there have been five incidents involving leaks in South Carolina. Those include SCE&G stations such as Wateree in Richland County and Urquhart in Aiken County. Officials maintain the contamination never went off company property.
Evans said the group is worried the toxic materials could seep into nearby groundwater. The report calls for composite liners on all coal ash ponds. However, DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick said the state already requires liners on any new ponds, as well as monitoring wells to watch for contamination.
“We believe that our regulatory structure here in South Carolina adequately addresses any kind of storage and any type of handling very well,” Myrick said.
Power companies use coal ash ponds because it is more economical than transporting the ash to a dry landfill on the site. However, she says the companies are creating a major liability if a disaster ever causes a dam to fail. “If this should break, you’ve got a $1 billion cleanup,” she said, “If one looks at the risks posed by running these ponds, it’s certainly not saving the utilities money.
Earthjustice wants the federal government to begin regulating the ponds, traditionally left up to the states. The group says inconsistent state laws put the public at risk. However, Myrick said state regulators are more intimately aware of the South Carolina’s needs and risks and that federal regulation is not needed.
While power companies also don’t want the additional regulation, Yanity says it may be a moot point anyway– the industry is already planning to phase out the ponds in the long-term. “Coal ash ponds are kind of going the way of the dinosaurs,” he said. Newer regulations are causing more utilities to move towards dry storage. SCE&G also recycles roughly 60 percent of its ash to make concrete or grout. There is an incentive, as the company is trying to avoid future costs for new landfill space.
Higher future regulations of coal emissions are also causing companies such as Duke and SCE&G to look to other energy sources— such as nuclear or natural gas– for future production plants.