As floodwaters from Tropical Storm Florence’s aftermath steadily rise in Conway, power officials are working to stabilize a former coal plant which has toxic chemicals stored on-site.
Santee Cooper closed the Grainger plant five years ago, but has been working to remove more than 1.6 million tons of coal ash byproduct left behind in storage ponds. Spokeswoman Mollie Gore said roughly 200,000 tons remain at the site near the Waccamaw River.
“There is concern that the river will rise close to the top (of dikes holding back the ash ponds), perhaps overtop,” she told South Carolina. “It depends where it ends up.
Gore said flooding from Hurricane Matthew two years ago stayed 1-3 feet below the dike, but forecasters are not sure yet how high the water will get this time. Current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts predict water levels will be close to, if not exceed the 2016 flood.
Since cleanup crews have excavated ash closest to the river first, the material which remains is located in a second pond further away. Gore said crews are pumping water into the ponds to help balance the pressure from the rising river and avoid a breach. They are also staging bagged gravel sacks to potentially place on top of the dikes to help make them taller.
Coal ash is a byproduct of the power generation process. While not deemed a hazardous material by the EPA, it does contain toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Duke Energy said floodwaters eroded and may have breached one of its landfills near Wilmington, North Carolina this weekend. However, the utility is not sure how much, if any, ash flowed out with the floodwaters.
South Carolina utilities — prodded by environmental lawsuits — have taken the initiative to remove ash left behind and shuttered coal plants. Some of the material is recycled into Portland cement, while the unusable waste is kept in dry storage away from water sources. However, the process will take years due to the massive amounts of ash stored on site.