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Editorial: Keep pressure on utilities to clean up coal ash

Conway coal ash prep.jpg (copy) (copy)

A Santee Cooper backhoe crew at work on the coal ash pit near Conway in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in September 2018. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Cleaning up coal-ash pollution is a big deal. It’s a potent form of water pollution, and coal ash is invariably stored in pits and ponds along some of our most vulnerable waterways.

We escaped a potential crisis in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in 2018 when floodwaters threatened to overtop a coal-ash impoundment at the Grainger power plant along the Waccamaw River — and elsewhere.

So it’s welcome news that Dominion Energy just finished an important coal-ash cleanup along the Wateree River in Richland County near Congaree National Park, and that Santee Cooper is planning to clean up two monumental dumps near Georgetown’s Winyah power plant and between lakes Moultrie and Marion at the Cross power plant, the biggest coal-fired plant in the state. Some of the ash will be sold to be used in wallboard and cement, and the rest will be buried in lined landfills, The Post and Courier’s Andrew Brown reported.

But there is more work to do. While the Grainger site along the Waccammaw is being cleaned up, about 1.6 million tons of coal ash remains near Santee Cooper’s former Jeffries power station north of Moncks Corner.

Coal ash, a legacy of coal-fired electricity generation, contains toxic metals like arsenic and lead, and in high enough concentrations, it can effectively kill a body of water. And once a river, lake or stream is contaminated with coal ash, only time can reverse the damage. Groundwater has also been polluted by coal ash that has leached into wells.

As of last year, Santee Cooper, SCE&G successor Dominion and Duke Energy had removed and reburied (in lined pits) about 5.6 million tons of coal ash in South Carolina. But at least 14 million more tons will need to be disposed of properly over the coming decade.

About 3.5 million tons of coal ash was removed from the site along the Wateree, based on the settlement of a lawsuit brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center. The two Santee Cooper projects, also prompted by legal settlements, will remove nearly 12 million tons of coal ash from two high-risk areas.

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Duke Energy, fined more than $100 million for spilling about 39,000 tons of toxic ash into the Dan River in 2014, has vowed to close and clean up all its coal-ash dumps by 2029 under a legal settlement.

About half of South Carolina’s 16 coal-ash ponds have been dealt with, closed and the slurry scooped out and reburied in lined pits away from water. The utilities are working to have the rest cleaned up by the end of the next decade — they hope, according to the SELC, which has litigated the issue across the Southeast.

In North Carolina, attorney Frank Holleman of the SELC is working to have Duke clean up coal-ash dumps along the Broad and Catawba rivers. That is important for South Carolina because the rivers flow into the Palmetto State.

In a move that threatens to halt some of the cleanup momentum, the Trump administration has proposed easing rules for coal-ash disposal by softening groundwater monitoring requirements and allowing ash to remain in unlined ponds for longer.

Whatever happens at the federal level, South Carolina needs to keep pushing ahead. Virginia, for instance, recently passed a law that requires Dominion to move about 27 million cubic yards of coal ash in line with rules established by Environmental Protection Agency in 2015. In North Carolina, the Department of Environmental Quality has ordered Duke to clean up all its coal ash pits.

South Carolina needs to be equally tough in ensuring the residual cost of burning coal doesn’t come back to haunt us in the form of an environmental disaster.

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