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Sierra Club sues three SC coal plants over decade-long expired water pollution permits

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South Carolina power co-ops and their members sound off over emission regs (copy) (copy) (copy)

Santee Cooper's Winyah Generating Station near Georgetown is one of three coal-fired plants in the state that haven't had active water pollution permits for around 10 years, a lawsuit alleges. File 

The Sierra Club filed a lawsuit against S.C. Department of Environmental and Health Control for their failure to update their long-expired water permits.

The grassroots environmental organization is suing the state's environmental regulator for their fault in "protecting the water quality and health of families and waterways" from substances such as mercury, arsenic and other dangerous pollutants by allowing outdated pollution discharge permits at three coal-burning plants, according to the Sierra Club.

The three coal plants are Cross, Winyah and Wateree. According to them, the agency has kept these expired permits for over a decade and is filing suit to force DHEC to take action on these outdated permits.  The utilities that operate the plants are not named. 

At all three sites, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits—which monitor and limit industrial discharge into waterways—expired almost a decade ago.

 · The Santee Cooper's Cross Generating Station in Berekly County, which the permit expired in August 2010.

 · The Santee Cooper's Winyah Generating Station in Georgetown, which the permit expired in July 2011. 

 · The Dominion Energy’s Wateree Station in Eastover, which the permit expired in December 2012.

For nearly a decade, these three coal plants have been releasing excessive and dangerous amounts of toxic pollution that can poison drinking water, make swimming and fishing unsafe, damage children's developmental health, and cause cancer, according to the suit.

Since these plants are close to mostly Black and low-income neighborhoods, this poses a threat to their communities who are disproportionately impacted by health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and lately, the coronavirus pandemic.

"Black residents shouldn’t also be burdened by toxic waterways near their homes, churches and schools," says Xavier Boatright, an organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Boatrigth, who lives near the Cross coal plant, showed concern over the discharge and said no POC should have to suffer because of the agency.

 “The people responsible for making sure our communities are safe and our water is clean have failed us,” Boatright said. “Black people, people of color and low-income South Carolinians shouldn’t have to beg for basic environmental and health protections that are rightfully ours.”

The permits have a maximum term of five years in part to the federal Clean Water Act and the South Carolina Pollution Control Act, to ensure regular re-evaluations of pollution control technologies, and to determine whether new technologies have become available that would justify stricter permit limits.

At the Cross, Winyah and Wateree facilities, they haven’t incorporated the 2015 federal effluent limitation guidelines to regulate coal plant discharges thus limiting the amount of toxic heavy metals that can be released into waterways.

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Until new guidelines are put into place for these permits, massive outflows of these metals will continue, further damaging the environment and threatening people’s health.

“DHEC has caused serious harm to the health of South Carolinians by allowing these dirty, outdated coal plants to discharge even more toxic pollution into our waterways,” said Will Harlan, senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

However, if DHEC does reconsider the permits and apply newer standards to their facilities, the precarious economics of the coal plants would become even more rocky.

“State regulators must put permit protections in place immediately, and Dominion Energy and Santee Cooper must start moving completely away from dirty, damaging fossil fuels and toward the clean, safe, affordable energy communities demand and deserve,” Harlan said.

S.C. Environmental Law Project is representing the suit against the agency.

 SCELP staff attorney Leslie Lenhardt said that efforts have been made to do something on these permits but the agency has not acted on it. In South Carolina, there’s a loophole that allows plants to keep operating under lapsed permits if a review for new ones hasn’t been completed.

"We have no other option at this point but to seek a judicial order requiring them to make a decision on these languishing applications,” Lenhardt said.

As for the 1,260-megawatt plant located in Georgetown, Santee Cooper is planning to close down the station, although the process will take years. The plant, which discharges into the North Santee River and Sampit River along Turkey Creek, plan to shutter two coal furnaces there by 2023 and the remaining two by 2027.

Resident LaTonya Anderson who lives close to the plant, expressed her concern about this shocking discover  and said she was completely unaware of the risks.

"I am very concerned about the water quality of my local area, as many members of my community use well water to drink, bathe, and wash laundry," Anderson said. "I am anxious about the health of my family, especially my children and aunts. I worry that my children’s young bodies and developing minds make them especially vulnerable to these contaminants. I have one aunt that is recovering from neck surgery, another that is a cancer survivor, and another that is currently battling cancer. I worry that their medical conditions could make them especially vulnerable to water pollution."

She also is concerned about the water quality of Santee River since she has two children who live to fish in the river. Because they catch and eat the fish from the river, there are concerns over whatever her and her family may have been contaminated from pollution.

They no longer eat the fish there.

Attempts to reach DHEC's spokesperson for comments but they have not responded. 

The story is still being updated. Please check back for updates.


Kareem Wilson covers health for the Georgetown and Myrtle Beach area for the Georgetown Times. He previously covered entertainment and community news for the Charlotte Post in Charlotte, NC.

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