Crews are about 40 percent complete with a project to remove more than 3 million tons of coal ash from Duke Energy’s former W.S. Lee plant in Williamston. So far, about 1.4 million tons have been cleaned up, the company reported..
The cleanup is part of a 2015 settlement between Duke and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). Duke is excavating the coal ash from the unlined pits and lagoons to a permitted, dry, lined storage facility in Georgia.
“Ultimately we were able to get Duke Energy to sign a settlement agreement that requires it to move all the ash from that dangerous, polluted site,” Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman said. Holleman spearheaded the campaign to have the site cleared.
“Duke Energy has now removed 1.4 million tons of coal ash from the most dangerous area at the site,” he said. “There was coal ash literally right on the banks of the Saluda River in old, primitive, unlined pits.”
A Duke spokesperson said the containment basins met the industry standards at the time and the state granted permits for their construction and regulated their use. Dannielle Peoples said the area included in the settlement agreement is older than any coal ash regulations.
“The areas that we have been excavating since 2015 actually pre-dated the coal ash basin regulations, so we entered into an agreement to be able to manage that and have oversight from the state agency,” she said.
“We could have had a catastrophe,” Holleman said of the site, because of its proximity to the river. He said coal ash material can seep through unlined lagoons, leeching arsenic, lead, mercury and heavy metals which could pollute the river.
“We found contaminants around the river near this site,” he said.
Peoples said the Environmental Protection Agency does not consider coal ash toxic.
“For years the Environmental Protection Agency has studied coal ash and repeatedly determined it is a non-hazardous substance . . . when you burn coal, the coal ash is all elements that we would find in soil and other naturally-occurring products,” she said.
According to Coal Ash Basics on the EPA website, coal ash contains contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and arsenic. Without proper management, these contaminants can pollute waterways, ground water, drinking water, and the air, the agency says on its website.