A South Carolina utility company that drew fire for allegedly tainting a local water supply with coal ash residue, a by-product of burning coal that is known to cause serious illness, recently purchased 987 acres in Colleton County to build a new landfill for the waste.

The acquisition comes as the federal Environmental Protection Agency weighs a proposal to reclassify coal ash as a hazardous waste material, which would make its disposal more strictly regulated.

An SCE&G spokesman said the company needs to build the landfill now to prepare for when current storage facilities near the Edisto River, where the alleged contamination occurred, fill up. He said the project's timing "is not tied to regulations."

"When the current landfills are filled, we must have another option," Robert Yanity said. "We can't wait to see what the government does."

But critics, including Nancy Cave of the Coastal Conservation League, charge that the project is an attempt to evade the proposed federal regulations that could require sending the waste

out of state at a higher cost to utility companies.

"It's in their interest to move as quickly as possible with this landfill," Cave said. "The federal regulations would be

much more rigorous and much more costly than to build a landfill."

SCE&G purchased the land -- an area larger than Mount Pleasant's Palmetto Islands County Park-- on Sept. 10, Yanity said. He declined to say the sale price.

The landfill, which would cost at least $15 million to build and could be operational in as few as five years, would take up fewer than 200 acres of the site, although designs have not been finalized, he said. It would store ash generated at the company's Canadys Station, which produces about 100,000 tons of ash a year and is about four miles away. Yanity said it is unclear how soon the existing storage sites would be full but that it "wouldn't be before the new landfill is ready."

The landfill would benefit Colleton County by increasing SCE&G's tax base and by adding a host of construction jobs and up to 10 permanent posts, Yanity said. He said the landfill would be built with "stringent environmental standards," including a liner, a drainage system to prevent pollutants from leaching into groundwater and an on-site stormwater treatment system.

Local environmentalists dismissed Yanity's explanation of SCE&G's environmental precautions for the ash, which contains arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium and other potentially toxic metals that can cause cancer, neurological damage and other illnesses if it infiltrates the water supply.

"Even lined landfills can leach contaminants," Cave said.

To date, testing for contamination near the Canadys plant has been inconclusive.

The proposed dry-storage system is more environmentally sound than the controversial wet-storage ponds now used at the Canadys facility, environmental groups said. Still, Cave and residents remain opposed to any further ash storage in what they say is an area that already is delicate and compromised.

"It might be better in a landfill than in the toxic sludge ponds, but that doesn't take away from the toxicity of it," Cave said. "The solution is for it to be ruled a hazardous waste so it will be disposed of under the most stringent regulations. That would limit its chances of creating a negative health and environmental impact."

The EPA outlined its proposals in the Federal Register in June. The public comment period is ongoing. The EPA has not announced when it expects to have a decision.

Yanity said SCE&G opposes the reclassification because it would require utility companies to transport ash to hazardous waste landfills. Only two such sites are in the Southeast, the nearest in Alabama, he said.

The EPA said in a statement Friday that if the landfill were operational or under construction before the proposed regulations take effect, SCE&G would not need to comply with the new, stricter construction requirements. The company could use its own landfill - and would not have to send the ash out of state -- provided it obtains a hazardous waste landfill permit, the EPA said.

Thom Berry, spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said his agency sent staff to a public hearing the EPA held in Charlotte last month.

"We are in the process of formulating our position and will submit that in a letter to the EPA" by Nov. 19, Berry said in a statement.

Locally, approval for the landfill is not a sealed deal. SCE&G must present its proposal during at least two Colleton County public zoning hearings to obtain proper permits. Those hearings have not been scheduled, county Planning Director Philip Slayter said.

At least three residents plan to be there.

William Hiott Jr., a Walterboro resident whose family farm is about two miles from the proposed landfill, said he's worried he might be living next to a site that "contains some of the world's most toxic metals."

"I am certain they will make promises of safeguards against any future disasters and breakdowns," Hiott said. "But promises are not guarantees. You think BP didn't promise they wouldn't have an oil spill in the Gulf? We can do everything humanly possibly to avoid disaster, but you're still rolling the dice."

Troy Neuroth, whose home is about 300 yards from the site, attended a meeting with SCE&G last month, when officials told him a tree buffer around the property would keep the landfill hidden from view. The comments offered him no comfort. He's worried his property value will plummet, wildlife will be destroyed and his family's quality of life will deteriorate.

"They'll be trucking the stuff up and down our residential roads," Neuroth said.

Danny Coe, who said DHEC has monitored his family's water supply for possible contamination from the existing storage ponds, wants a total shift to cleaner energy.

"We're sitting back here with stuff in our water and air and we can't fish in our rivers," Coe said. "And nobody's doing anything about it."