About 20 power company dump sites, some of which have leaked poisonous coal residue into groundwater, face closure in South Carolina under a federal plan to protect the environment from electric utility waste.

South Carolina's coal ash ponds include a pair in lower Richland County that are the source of increasing community complaints. Arsenic has seeped from the SCE&G ponds into groundwater and trickled into the nearby Wateree River just upstream from Congaree National Park.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plan, to be discussed at a hearing Sept. 14 in Charlotte, faces vigorous opposition from power companies worried about the cost of closing coal waste ponds and the impact on their recycling efforts. The ponds collect coal waste left over from the generation of electricity.

But plan supporters say stronger federal rules would protect well water and rivers threatened by arsenic and other toxic materials contained in coal ash. Short-term exposure to arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting and skin disorders, while long-term exposure to some forms of arsenic has been tied to cancer.

Environmentalists blame weak state efforts to control coal ash pollution as a key reason for needing tough federal standards to control threats from arsenic and other toxins.

The EPA proposal, which does not need congressional approval, was discussed at hearings this past week in Virginia and Colorado. Environmentalists and some residents of lower Richland County plan to attend the hearing in Charlotte later this month.

At a community meeting last month, they voiced concerns about the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's commitment to protect the area's groundwater, Catawba Riverkeeper David Merryman said.

"The main comments were that time after time, DHEC has proven they are not willing to do anything about it," he said.

The safety of coal ash ponds came into focus in late 2008, when a catastrophic spill sent up to a billion gallons of contaminated water and sludge gushing across a Tennessee community. Since then, concerns have also intensified about leaks that affect groundwater over time.

Using government data, national conservation groups recently reported that more than 100 coal ash sites have caused environmental problems across the country. The United States has nearly 600 coal ash ponds, according to the EPA.

In addition to those at SCE&G's Wateree power station near Eastover, ash ponds at the company's Urquhart coal plant near Aiken and those at Santee Cooper's Grainger coal station in Conway also were cited as having contaminated groundwater, according to a Feb. 24 report by the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice.

Experts say it could be a decade before the rules take effect -- and how strictly the EPA would regulate coal ponds remains uncertain. The agency's proposal actually contains two plans, one of which would eventually be chosen.

The two options

The tougher proposal would classify coal ash wastes as hazardous, making them subject to federal enforcement. It would require the ponds to be cleaned out and liners installed within five years of taking effect.

Ash pond owners also would be subject to cleaning up any contamination that was left, an EPA official told The State newspaper last week.

Those rules, according to the EPA, mean power companies likely would decide to close the ponds because of the expense and regulatory requirements.

The other plan would have power companies clean out ponds and install liners. But it would not classify coal ash wastes as hazardous and the wastes would not be subject to federal enforcement.

The second proposal also would allow new ash ponds as long as they had liners. And states would decide whether to adopt rules governing the ponds. The EPA says this plan also could phase out coal ash ponds, but critics aren't so sure. They say states might not do anything since it wouldn't be required.

"It would phase out ponds if states decided to adopt rules and require that," said Scott Slesinger, who tracks legislation for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington. "But in many states, the coal industry and other big companies are expected to continue their ability to hold off the regulators."

S.C. power companies aren't anxious to see either rule in place, but if one is to be adopted, they say the less restrictive rule is more than enough to manage coal ash wastes.

"Ash can be safely managed as a non-hazardous waste," SCE&G spokesman Robert Yanity said, noting that "Our position is shared by utilities across the country."

Neither SCE&G or the state-owned Santee Cooper company would say how much they think the federal rules would cost, but Santee Cooper's Mollie Gore said the amount could be significant.

The more restrictive rules also could chill efforts to recycle wastes produced at coal-fired power plants, Yanity and Gore said. Gore said companies that acquire Santee Cooper's coal ash waste for use in concrete and other products could be scared away if the material is labeled as hazardous waste.

As a result, more coal ash waste would be put in landfills instead of recycled, she said.

In lower Richland

Records show South Carolina has about 20 coal ash ponds. SCE&G says it has five of the waste ponds, while Santee Cooper says it has 10. Duke Energy and Progress Energy also have a handful here.

DHEC spokesman Thom Berrry said his agency has not taken a formal position on the EPA's coal ash plan.

DHEC knew in the 1990s about groundwater contamination at SCE&G's lower Richland coal ponds but never fined the company. Agency officials say they have an agreement with SCE&G to limit the future source of arsenic.

Still, the groundwater beneath the ponds remains polluted with high arsenic levels -- and last fall, court documents revealed evidence of arsenic-contaminated water trickling into the Wateree River.

Neither problem was enough to persuade DHEC to more tightly regulate the company's arsenic discharges from the coal ash ponds to the Wateree River. In fact, DHEC dropped any limits on arsenic from SCE&G's wastewater discharge permit, saying they weren't warranted.

The agency's proposal to drop the limits drew more than 100 people to a March hearing in which virtually everyone protested the dropping of the arsenic limits. Citizens questioned why DHEC could get rid of limits when the agency knew arsenic had already polluted groundwater that seeps into the river.