A lawsuit over water pollution at a Conway coal plant has revealed serious problems in the South Carolina agency that handles clean air and water permits. Several conservation groups are suing the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, saying the agency has not acted on a pollution permit for the Grainger Generating Station six years after it expired.
The lawsuit claims that state-owned utility Santee-Cooper had been operating the plant on an expired permit since 2006. In other words, DHEC still regulates the plants under the 2002 license regulations, rather than newer, tougher standards. Santee Cooper idled the Grainger plant earlier this year, citing cost concerns. However, it still stores its byproducts in ash ponds located on-site.
Frank Holleman of the Southern Environmental Law Center says the lack of an updated license hurts the public. “DHEC has let Santee Cooper sit on a permit that was issued ten years ago and doesn’t have limits on harmful, toxic substances such as arsenic, mercury, and copper,” he told South Carolina Radio Network.
However, Grainger is not the only plant that operating with an expired permit. In fact, DHEC’s chief says nearly 500 active pollution permits have expired for businesses, homes, and local government entities. Director Catherine Templeton says she first realized the extent of the problem when she took over the agency this spring.
“What concerned me was… we’ve got almost 500 expired permits and the business practice (at DHEC) was sort of to let them lie,” she said. Part of the issue was budget cutbacks during the recent recession. Templeton said her predecessor Earl Hunter made renewing the licenses a lower priority as his agency faced budget strains. “I understand the reason for it, but it’s not a corner I would cut,” she said.
Santee Cooper has three other coal plants that are currently operating with an expired water discharge license. Private utility South Carolina Electric & Gas also has three coal plants that are operating with outdated licenses, according to DHEC records.
But the Southern Environmental Law Center, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy have singled out the Grainger Plant partly because of what they turned up during an open records request, Holleman said.
The groups say Santee Cooper and DHEC have been in close communications about the permit and DHEC indicated to Santee Cooper that it would issue the permit if the utility wanted it to. Santee Cooper allegedly replied, “We don’t want to push the permitting.”
Templeton said she was aware of that email exchange, but could not comment because of the lawsuit.
Holleman accused DHEC of giving special treatment to Santee Cooper, which is also owned by the state. “The whole point of federal and state law is that, every five years, the public will get the benefit of new technology that will help us eliminate, not perpetuate, pollution.”
Templeton says cutting into the backlog will take some time, but added that her administration will make it a higher priority.
A spokeswoman for Santee Cooper made it clear that the utility does not believe it violated any laws. “Santee Cooper filed with DHEC for a permit renewal in a timely manner and since the permit expired, we have continued to operate under its terms while DHEC considers our renewal application,” Mollie Gore said in an email.