ST. STEPHEN — Santee Cooper has hired a consultant to test drinking water wells along Tobacco Road, an unpaved lane that Santee Cooper used as a demonstration project in 2004 to determine whether coal ash should be used on dirt roads.

Santee Cooper supplied 425 tons of fly ash from its Jefferies Station coal plant for the 1.5-mile road project. A recent Watchdog report revealed that the Jefferies Station fly ash contained traces of arsenic, barium and other toxic chemicals.

In a community meeting March 30, residents said they felt like Santee Cooper used them as guinea pigs and demanded that the utility test their water and air.

Earlier this week, a top Santee Cooper official began notifying residents that the company had hired a consultant, GEL Engineering of Charleston, to test residents' water. The consultant has analyzed numerous samples at Santee Cooper's facilities over the years.

Laura Varn, Santee Cooper vice president of corporate communications, described the costs of the testing as "nominal," with the final tally dependent on how many residents want their water tested. She said the testing will take about 10 days.

In addition to fly ash, Berkeley County crews have spread limestone on the road over the past few years, a common practice on dirt roads in South Carolina. Varn said Santee Cooper asked GEL Laboratories to test two samples of limestone from a nearby quarry and found they contained arsenic and selenium.

Residents were pleased with Santee Cooper's decision. "I think this water needs to be tested, and I think they need to get it moving," said the Rev. Julius Barnes, who lives on Tobacco Road. "I'm not sure how they're going to test the air, though. We'll see how it goes."