CONWAY — Environmental groups say state-owned electric utility Santee Cooper is trying to mislead the public about its proposed plan to contain groundwater pollution at the closed Grainger plant here, but Santee Cooper officials say the proposal is in its early stages and more detailed information — including answers to environmentalists' questions — will come as the plan works its way through the regulatory process.
Santee Cooper, in a proposal submitted in March to state regulators, says it wants to combine the two coal ash ponds at the Grainger plant -located adjacent to the Waccamaw River — and then build a cement-fortified vault around the site, capturing and containing pollutants such as arsenic in the coal slurry. The proposal would leave the polluted groundwater at the Grainger site. Environmental groups want the utility to remove the coal ash and haul it to a lined landfill.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is reviewing the proposal.
Opponents of the plan, including the Southern Environmental Law Center, say the utility's proposal overstates the effectiveness of the vault remedy, inflates the estimated cost of trucking coal ash from Grainger to an offsite landfill and misstates geological conditions at the plant site to make it appear as if the plan is a better alternative than removing the coal ash.
“We feel that Santee Cooper has not been honest with the public,” said Nancy Cave, north coast director of the Coastal Conservation League, which opposes the plan. “The state utility could demonstrate real leadership. Instead, they want to do whatever is the cheapest way possible.”
Utility spokeswoman Mollie Gore said it's too early to disregard the proposed closure plan.
“The plan we submitted to DHEC is a conceptual plan, and clearly identified as such in our cover letter,” Gore said. “It's a little disingenuous for SELC to fault us for not providing detailed engineering and supporting documents when we're not at that stage yet. This is phase one of a multi-phase process.”
Questions about geology
The vault technology has been around for decades and the federal Environmental Protection Agency calls it a well-established method for containing pollution, although its use at coal ash ponds is relatively new and the technology's success depends largely on the geology of the site where it is built.
Frank Holleman, a lawyer for the SELC, says the Grainger site is unsuitable because the underground Bear Bluff Formation — the geological floor on which the vault would be built — is permeable and would allow polluted groundwater to escape beyond the vault's perimeter and toward the river. He said Santee Cooper's assertion that the formation is made of impermeable clay is based on a “geologic mistake.”
“The Bear Bluff Formation is made up of sand, silt, fossils and limestone, and is not built of clay,” Holleman said. “It is porous and would allow the movement of arsenic pollution into groundwater and the Waccamaw River.”
Craig Sasser — manager of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge, which is located downstream and in close proximity to the Grainger plant — said in a letter to DHEC that he also is worried that Santee Cooper's vault will not permanently contain the arsenic pollution.
“The plan fails to sufficiently contain or remove the source of the pollution, thus leaving the heavily contaminated site in place for future, long-term problems that could affect present or future refuge property,” Sasser stated in the letter. “Santee Cooper's preferred alternative will leave much of the arsenic contamination in touch and may not even fully contain even the contamination inside the proposed vault design.”
Gore said environmentalists are basing their conclusions on scientific data covering the entire Bear Bluff Formation, which covers much of the northeastern part of the state.
“The stretch that sits below the Grainger site has more clay to it, and our contractors did site-specific soil borings and lab testing results to determine it is a confining layer,” Gore said. A study conducted for Santee Cooper by the Arcadis environmental engineering firm, describes the formation beneath Grainger as being “a very stiff gray clay with trace amounts of very fine sand.”
“There is no geological mistake,” Gore said.
But Lauck Ward, a geologist who has studied the Bear Bluff Formation along the Waccamaw River in Conway, said in a letter to the SELC that the formation's rocks are “clearly porous and would not serve as a confining unit to groundwater movement.”
Will vault technology work?
The Tennessee Valley Authority is building a wall around the 90-acre coal ash pond at its Kingston, Tenn., electric plant in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the 2008 disaster in which a dike failure allowed 5.4 million cubic feet of ash to flow into the adjacent Emory River. Holleman and others point to the Kingston disaster as an example of what could happen at Grainger.
Kingston's slurry wall — nearly 2 1 / 2miles long and 80 feet deep — is the nation's first to contain a coal ash pond, according to Don Fuller, an engineer who designed the project. Fuller told Engineering News-Record, a trade publication, that he foresees the technology being used at other electric plants in sensitive environmental areas to contain coal ash pollution.
“I don't know of another solution,” Fuller told the publication.
It is still too early to tell whether the Kingston project will successfully contain the coal ash there, but similar projects at other, non-coal ash sites have failed, according to the EPA.
“Once the walls are completed, it is often difficult to assess their actual performance,” an EPA report stated. “Therefore, long-term groundwater monitoring programs are needed at these sites to ensure that migration of waste constituents does not occur.”
Santee Cooper has such a monitoring program in its proposal for the Grainger vault, which would be about one mile long and 30 feet deep. The utility has provided examples of successful vault projects at other areas, but Holleman said those are misleading because the source of the pollution was removed from those sites before a vault was built.
“The slurry walls at these sites do not demonstrate anything about the feasibility of the Grainger plan because these other structures were not designed to serve as a stand-alone solution to contain contamination,” Holleman said in a letter to DHEC. “Instead, these structures are intended 1 / 8to 3 / 8 serve as an additional remedial step after the removal of the contaminant and contaminated soil and water.”
The geological conditions also were different at the other sites, Holleman said.
“None of the examples was in a swamp in a shallow water table by a major river — an obvious and significant difference” from Grainger, he said.
One example that Santee Cooper provided where cleanup did not take place before the vault construction — the B.C. Cobb Electric Generating Plant in Muskegon, Mich. — continues to leak water contaminated with boron and lithium into the Muskegon River, according to groundwater monitoring tests there.
“The fact remains that years after it was completed, the 1 / 8Cobb 3 / 8 structure has failed to stop extremely high concentrations of pollution from entering the river,” Holleman wrote in the letter to DHEC. “A vault at Grainger would be no different.”
Gore said the utility sticks by its proposal, adding that the vault — which would be built to withstand an earthquake — “uses sound engineering and proven technology.”
Utility: Moving ash too costly
Santee Cooper and environmentalists also have battled over the utility's projected cost of moving the coal ash from Grainger to an offsite, lined landfill.
Santee Cooper has said the cost of trucking the coal ash to a lined landfill at its electric plant in Cross is prohibitive — costing at least $77.5 million compared with the $48 million estimate for the vault proposal. Holleman, however, said the utility's numbers are skewed because Santee Cooper included nearly $28 million in tipping — or waste handling — fees in the expected costs of hauling the coal ash. Santee Cooper owns the landfill and would not charge itself a fee for its use, he said.
“Santee Cooper would never pay itself these fictional tipping fees,” Holleman said. “The public, who owns Santee Cooper, and Santee Cooper's rate payers — including the residents of Conway and those who live near and use the Waccamaw River — have already paid for the construction of that landfill.”
Without the tipping fees, Holleman said, the cost of removing the coal ash at Grainger is comparable to Santee Cooper's estimated cost for vault construction.
Gore has said the $28 million in reported tipping fees represents the cost Santee Cooper would have to absorb by using its landfill capacity for the Grainger ash ponds instead of other waste.
“We planned this new landfill to accommodate construction byproducts at Cross Generating Station,” she said. “If we use it for Grainger ash, we'll need to build additional capacity to meet the needs at Cross. That is a real cost to our customers, and it would be irresponsible for us to ignore that in analyzing alternatives for the ash pond closure.”
Holleman also said Santee Cooper is asking state regulators for special treatment not available to private utilities.
In 2002, DHEC previously required privately owned SCE&G to remove coal ash at its McMeekin facility near the Saluda River and put it in a lined landfill.
“If Santee Cooper has its way, it would create a stark example of DHEC treating a state agency one way and treating a private utility entire differently,” Holleman said.
Lawsuits and opposition
Santee Cooper's proposal to leave coal ash encased in a vault at the Grainger site also had drawn opposition from Conway leaders and residents.
The Conway City Council in May unanimously adopted a resolution opposing any plan by state-owned utility Santee Cooper to leave coal ash and its residual pollution — including groundwater contaminated with arsenic — at the Grainger site.
“This is something where we're looking after the best interests of the community,” Conway Mayor Alys Lawson said.
The council's decision followed a public hearing held in April by DHEC, where Conway residents overwhelmingly opposed the utility's plan to leave the coal ash in place.
In addition, the SELC — which represents the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Coastal Conservation League and the Waccamaw Riverkeeper — has filed two lawsuits against Santee Cooper seeking to force the utility to remove the coal ash. A lawsuit filed in federal court alleges the utility has violated the Clean Water Act while a lawsuit in state court alleges Santee Cooper has violated the S.C. Pollution Control Act.
A third lawsuit, filed against DHEC, was settled in June. In that case, state regulators agreed to issue a new water pollution control permit for the Grainger plant. That new permit likely will contain tougher standards than the one currently regulating the Grainger site. Pollution at the site has been regulated by an 11-year-old permit that expired nearly seven years ago. That old permit did not set any limits for the amount of pollutants that could be discharged into groundwater at the site.
The ash ponds — which total about 82 acres, or more than three times the size of the lake at Broadway at the Beach — contain 1.3 million tons of waste created by the generation of electricity at the coal-fired power plant. The SELC and others say the groundwater pollution threatens the nearby river, wildlife and recreational activities.
Although the 47-year-old Grainger plant was idled last spring and closed for good by the end of last year, the waste remains in the ponds that are separated from the river by earthen berms. Environmentalists say those berms sometimes are submerged when the river's water levels are high. Bernard Hawkins, a lawyer representing Santee Cooper, said the utility has no indication the berms have ever been submerged or that the ash ponds have ever been flooded by the river.
Groundwater testing at the Grainger site has repeatedly shown arsenic levels ranging from 100 parts per billion to 900 parts per billion — much higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum safe level of 10 parts per billion. Arsenic levels of up to 3,228 parts per billion have been recorded at the site. A part per billion is a unit of measurement equivalent to 3 seconds out of a century or one pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.
Arsenic is a colorless and tasteless metal that occurs naturally in soil and from the coal-burning activity that fueled the Grainger plant. Long-term exposure to arsenic has been linked to several types of cancers.