Rivers in danger a call for epa intervention in south carolina s rivers
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Rivers in Danger: A call for EPA intervention in South Carolina’s rivers. Jenks Wilson. The root of the problem:. South Carolina has a history of energy dependence on coal. With over 60% of its energy derived from coal power plants, it faces a host of environmental issues as a result.

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Rivers in Danger: A call for EPA intervention in South Carolina’s rivers

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Rivers in Danger: A call for EPA intervention in South Carolina’s rivers

Jenks Wilson

The root of the problem:

  • South Carolina has a history of energy dependence on coal. With over 60% of its energy derived from coal power plants, it faces a host of environmental issues as a result.

  • (http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=South_Carolina_and_coal#cite_note-sf-9).

The Problem: Waste from coal power plants contaminates groundwater with arsenic

  • The National Resource Defense Council writes that ash generated from burning coal contains numerous toxic chemicals and metals including arsenic, nickel, and lead. While there are safe ways to dispose of the waste, such as recycling it into raw materials for construction products, “the majority of CCW is not disposed of in this way.” Instead, most of it is dumped into landfills or coal ash ponds. When it is mixed with water, the toxic components dissolve, forming “leachate.” If a landfill or pond is poorly regulated, which is often the case, this contaminated water can seep into the groundwater and find its way into rivers or other bodies of water. According to the NRDC, “40% of landfills accepting coal waste and 80% of surface impoundments [coal ash ponds] do not have liners that would prevent leachate from infiltrating nearby water supplies.”

  • Source: National Resource Defense Council, “Dangerous Disposals: Keeping Coal Combustion Waste Out of Our Water Supply,” September 2007.

There is arsenic in SC’s rivers

  • A variety of cancers, including skin cancer, have been linked to arsenic. While the literature is scarcer concerning the amount of exposure/intake necessary to develop cancer in humans, there is enough science behind the claim that the intake of arsenic does lead to cancer in various forms. A recent study at Dartmouth University concluded that the ingestion of arsenic can inhibit neural functioning and lead to tumor formation.

  • The Federal limit for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion

  • Source: Dennis Liang Fei et al. “Therapeutics, Targets, and Chemical Biology: Activation of Hedgehog Signaling by the Environmental Toxicant Arsenic May Contribute to the Etiology of Arsenic-Induced Tumors,” Cancer Res 0008-5472.CAN-09-2898; Published OnlineFirst February 23, 2010; doi:10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-09-2898

Major Rivers in SC

The coal ash ponds and landfills used by SC’s coal power plants are poorly regulated

  • Studies beginning in the late 1990s have found that arsenic contamination is a direct result of seeping waste water from coal ash ponds, which the power plants use to contain their waste. One such study, the combined effort of the Environmental Integrity Project and the public-interest law firm Earthjustice, conducted in 2009 found that the groundwater around 3 sites contributing to water contamination from CCW contamination. The findings were catalogued in a report called “Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites.”

Problem site 1: The Wateree Station

  • The Wateree Station plant, owned by SCE&G, contained levels of arsenic in concentrations 18 times higher than federal limits for safe drinking water. The groundwater was also found to be seeping from an “unlined surface impoundment” into property beyond that owned by the company, contaminating water beyond the ash pond around 5 times higher than the federal limit, and was finding its way into the Wateree River. Fish from the river were tested for arsenic and it was found in “elevated levels” in their tissue. The study also noted that “one catfish was found to have arsenic tissue levels of 500 parts per billion.” These findings came after the company was cited by DHEC in 2001 for violating “state groundwater standards.” The leaks themselves were reported to have arsenic levels at 190 times the federal limit.

  • Sources: Fretwell, Sammy. 2009a. Arsenic draining into Wateree River, The State. www.thestate.com/local/story/970356.html (Oct. 4, 2009).

  • Tony Bartelme. Oct. 5, 2009. Watchdog update: More contamination found at SCE&G Wateree coal plant, The Post and Courier. www.postandcourier.com/news/2009/oct/05/05ashwatchweb/

Problem site 2: Urquhart Station

  • A coal ash landfill and two ash ponds near SCE&G’s Urquhart Station are located about 300 and 100 feet from the Savannah River respectively. The study found that water contaminated with elevated levels of arsenic and nickel from the landfill was seeping into a nearby wetland, although the wells nearest to the Savannah River were not found to have elevated levels of either.

  • Sources: Collinsworth, Keith, SC DHEC, Manager, Bureau of Land and Waste Management, Solid Waste Groundwater, telephone conversation with Mark Quarles, Global Environment, LLC (Feb. 2, 2010).

  • SCANA Services, Inc., letter to Stacey Adams, Bureau of Water, SC DHEC, from Mike Moore, SCANA (Sept. 19, 2007).

  • South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), letter from Mike Moore, SCE&G to Roger Schweitzer of Bureau of Land and Waste Management, SC DHEC (Nov. 16, 2006).

  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC), Groundwater Contamination Inventory, 2008, www.scdhec.gov/environment/water/gwci/gwci.pdf.

Problem site 3: Grainger Station

  • The coal ash ponds used by Grainger Generating Station in Conway, SC are contaminating groundwater near the Waccamaw River. Arsenic levels in the contaminated water maxed out at 91 times the federal limit. However, as of yet DHEC is not conducting any remedial action to solve the problem.

  • Sources: Adams, Stacey. 2010. Phone conversation Stacey Adams, SCDHEC (Jan. 27, 2010).

  • South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC). 2006. Letter from Chris Forrest of SC DHEC to Jay Hudson, Santee Cooper (Mar. 8 2006).

The problem doesn’t stop there

  • The Edisto River is also in danger. The EPA reported in 2007 in “Coal Combustible Waste Damage Case Assessments” that “arsenic has consistently been found in monitoring wells surrounding the old ash pond” at SCE&G’s Canadys Plant since 1982. When the problem was first identified, DHEC required the company to report on the contamination and it was found to extend beyond the company’s property. However, SCE&G was allowed to buy the property where the contaminated water was found and the boundary of their coal ash ponds was extended. The problem is that since the boundary was enlarged, further seeping of contaminated water was discovered outside the boundary.

  • Source: US Environment Protection Agency Office of Solid Waste, Coal Combustion Waste Damage Case Assessments, July 9, 2007.

Why is this allowed to go on?

  • The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control—DHEC—is currently in charge of dealing with the water contamination caused by coal power plants.

  • Some good news: “In its Oct. 14 agreement with DHEC, SCE&G says it will remove all ash from existing coal waste ponds by Jan. 1, 2022, and expand a landfill at the power plant to accommodate the arsenic-contaminated material.”

  • Source: Sammy Fretwell, “DHEC Pollution Deal Raises Questions,” The State, December, 2011, http://www.thestate.com/2011/12/21/2086851/lower-richland-pollution-deal.html .

Its not that simple

  • In the meantime, there is more than 2 million pounds of coal ash waste that will continue contaminating the water until it is removed.

  • In addition, there is nothing being done about the already contaminated groundwater.

  • SCE&G can drop its end of the agreement any time, so we have no guarantee that the ash will be removed as planned.

  • Source: Sammy Fretwell, “DHEC Pollution Deal Raises Questions,” The State, December, 2011, http://www.thestate.com/2011/12/21/2086851/lower-richland-pollution-deal.html .

How can we make sure the problem is solved?

  • If the EPA decides to designate CCW as hazardous waste, stricter cleanup policies will be enacted and noncompliant companies will face stiffer penalties.

  • Call for action: the EPA must label CCW as hazardous waste.

Will the EIP’s report be enough to convince the EPA?

  • At this point we have no way of knowing. Therefore, I propose a petition to be formed by a joint effort between South Carolina’s chapter of the Sierra Club and the state’s National Park services and to be signed by the citizens of South Carolina.

  • The parks could hold signature drives on site—school field trips go there frequently enough, why not give each kid a copy to take home to their parents?


  • The Sierra Club is a national organization. It could help fund the SC chapter’s initiatives to get people involved. Host barbecues, skeet shooting, oyster roasts—the same way the South has politicked since the good old days.

  • Why stop there? There are other local environmental groups that should be more than happy to help make the EPA aware of how important their decision is. Get the farmers on board—this definitely impacts them—have signing rallies at farmer’s markets.

  • Restaurateurs who pride themselves in serving local seafood should be eager to support an issue that could have an impact on the quality of their catch. Why not have them cater a signature drive? After all, nothing says “I’m a local business that cares” like supporting a local issue.

Send the petition to the EPA

  • Once enough signatures are collected, it will be submitted to the EPA. If this doesn’t weigh on their decision, then we have much bigger problems to worry about.


  • If the EPA steps in and regulates the coal power plants, then it will be one step further in getting South Carolina less dependant on an energy source that damages the environment in more ways than mentioned here.

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