The Sierra Club is suing South Carolina's environmental regulator, claiming the agency has failed to enforce pollution protections on the state's three largest coal power plants.
Water pollution permits for the three plants, owned by Santee Cooper and Dominion Energy, have been expired for as long as a decade, according to the suit. It's the responsibility of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to enforce the permitting program, which puts limits on the amount of toxic heavy metals that can be released into waterways.
It's one of many key Environmental Protection Agency programs that's delegated to state agencies like DHEC, which is named in the suit. The utilities that operate the plants are not named.
A DHEC spokesperson declined to comment Thursday.
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, said Leslie Lenhardt, an attorney for the S.C. Environmental Law Project. The firm is representing Sierra Club.
"It is pretty substantive review, I think it takes a while, so I think that’s why that loophole is there," she said. "I don't think anybody contemplated a decade of delay."
The coal-fired generation plants in question include:
- Dominion Energy's Wateree Station in Eastover, which last had an active permit in 2012.
- Santee Cooper's Winyah Generating Station in Georgetown, where the permit expired in 2011.
- Santee Cooper's Cross Generating Station in Berkeley County, where a permit expired in 2010.
The Sierra Club claims that applications to renew the permits have been filed in all three cases, but DHEC has failed to act on them, in effect letting the utilities avoid complying with more stringent pollution rules that were unveiled in 2015.
"Folks are extremely concerned about discharges, especially folks around Georgetown and the Sampit River," said Xavier Boatright, an organizer with Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "Not only do folks fish there, but now, we have this new COVID-19 reality, where folks have an acute sense to threats to public health."
The suit alleges that people near bodies of water affected by the plants' discharge — the Wateree River, North Santee River, Sampit River and Lake Moultrie — have resorted to drinking bottled water instead of their well water and no longer eat the fish they catch in these areas.
If DHEC does eventually reconsider the permits and apply newer standards, it would make the already precarious economics of the coal plants even more wobbly.
Dominion said in a long-range planning document this year that retrofitting its water discharges could prove "challenging and costly."
Santee Cooper, meanwhile, is already planning to close down its Winyah station, though the process will take years; it plans to shutter two coal furnaces there by 2023, and the remaining two by 2027.
Andrew Brown contributed to this report.