COLUMBIA - Duke Energy officials assured South Carolina regulators that the utility's two coal ash ponds in the state are safe in part because they are designed differently from a pond in North Carolina that dumped millions of gallons of contaminated water into a river.
But an environmental lawyer told the Public Service Commission on Monday that there are plenty of other ways the primitive structures can fail and send millions of gallons of ash-polluted water into nearby streams and rivers or allow contamination to seep into groundwater.
Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Frank Holleman urged Duke Energy to join South Carolina's other two utilities which have agreed to close the ponds and move the ash to safer storage in the next decade.
Regulators can review Duke Energy's electric rates and operations in South Carolina, but there doesn't appear to be much they could do about the utility's plans for its coal ash ponds. Duke asked for the hearing so it could keep the commission informed. The law center asked for a chance to respond to give its version.
Duke Energy has only two coal ash ponds in South Carolina. One is in Anderson County at a power plant is set to convert to natural gas within year. The second is at an already closed power plant in Darlington County where the pond has dried up, said Mike Ruhe, director of environmental affairs in South Carolina for the Charlotte, N.C., utility.
Neither pond has storm water pipes running under them and they will be thoroughly checked to make sure they are safe, according to the utility. A break in a storm water pipe caused the massive leak into the Dan River near Eden. N.C., last month. The toxic sludge containing arsenic, selenium, lead and other contaminants coated 70 miles of the river.
"We have looked at all the drawings to verify that there are no pipes or anything like that like we had at Dan River," Ruhe said. "We are looking to close both of those ponds as soon as possible."
But Holleman said that assurance is hollow. He said coal ash ponds are unlined pits built decades ago that could fail in any number of ways. He said the pond in Anderson County has a storm water pipe at the base of its dam that could cause all sorts of problems.
"That's just one failure. Before that happened, they weren't talking about storm pipes under ponds," Holleman said. "Who knows what other problems there might be."
South Carolina has 22 coal ash ponds across the state, but the other two major utilities - South Carolina Electric & Gas and Santee Cooper - have entered agreements with the Southern Environmental Law Center to get all the ash out of those ponds in the next decade to avoid lawsuits. Holleman hopes his group doesn't have to sue Duke Energy, but said the option is available - at least for now.
And South Carolina isn't immune to problems upstream. A half-dozen North Carolina coal ash ponds are in the by major rivers in the southern part of that state that flow into South Carolina., Holleman said.
Environmentalists want Duke Energy to do the same thing the other South Carolina utilities are doing - move the coal ash into lined landfills to protect groundwater and away from rivers.
"At least do with this ash what you and I are required to do with our kitchen waste," Holleman said. "No municipality could store routine municipal waste in an unlined pit filled with water next to a major waterway."