South Carolina Leads Southeast in Coal Ash Cleanup; NC and TN Taking Action

Santee Cooper’s Grainger plant in Conway, South Carolina.

This post is part one of a two-part series exploring the state of coal ash regulation and clean up in the Southeast. Part one focuses on North and South Carolina and Tennessee. Part two focuses on Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. SACE staff member Angela Garrone contributed to this post.

Between 2012–2015, South Carolina’s three utilities committed to excavate roughly 20 million tons of coal ash at all waterfront coal ash pits in the state and remove it to lined, dry storage. Already, one excavated site shows a dramatic reduction of arsenic contamination in groundwater.

Cleaning up coal ash works. What are our southeastern states doing to make it happen?

In short, not enough, and some are better than others. North Carolina’s regulators are requiring excavation at some of Duke’s sites, but they could allow the company to leave nearly 100 million tons of coal ash where it is, polluting groundwater presumably forever. In Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was ordered by the state to investigate and take steps to clean up its coal ash mess, but it’s far from certain that regulators will require removal of the ash and proper storage.

Litigation Wins Clean Up in South Carolina

South Carolina’s three power utilities, South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), Duke Energy, and Santee Cooper, agreed to remove all coal ash from unlined pits throughout the state, approximately 20 million tons in total. The Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) led the charge representing SACE, Riverkeepers, and other advocacy organizations in a series of lawsuits from 2012–2015.

South Carolina’s utilities are proving that excavation can be done relatively quickly and that it creates huge positive results for the environment. Santee Cooper, which SELC sued on behalf of SACE, Waccamaw Riverkeeper, and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League in 2012, is ahead of schedule, having already removed one-third of its ash. Since SCE&G started removing coal ash from the Wateree power plant site, arsenic at two wells beneath the ash pond decreased by over 90 percent. SELC and the Catawba Riverkeeper won cleanup at Wateree through a 2012 lawsuit.

A combination of legal pressure from SELC and public advocacy pushed Duke to remove coal ash from its waterfront coal ash pits at two sites in South Carolina. It’s noteworthy that the majority of action on coal ash in South Carolina was achieved without the intervention of the state’s environmental regulator. One might assume that a more active environmental regulator would have brought remedies to communities impacted by toxic ash much sooner, but South Carolina’s neighbor to the north proves that assumption completely wrong.

Nearly 100 Million Tons of Coal Ash Hangs in the Balance in North Carolina

Activists demand solar energy over coal and coal pollution at the 2015 Duke Shareholder Meeting.

Throughout the month of March, hundreds of North Carolinians attended 14 hearings held by North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). Many were angry that DEQ seems bent on ignoring science and public health concerns when it comes to implementing a state law that determines how Duke “cleans up” coal ash at its 14 power plants in the state.

After the catastrophic Dan River coal ash spill in 2014, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) to establish a rating process for Duke’s coal ash pits. DEQ’s ratings determine the requirements and timeline for Duke to “clean up” its coal ash. Unfortunately, if the McCrory administration doesn’t heed the demands of these concerned community members, millions of tons of “low priority” rated ash could potentially be left polluting groundwater perpetually.

SACE staff attended hearings for coal ash pits at the Asheville and Allen plants, located near Asheville and Charlotte, respectively. CAMA requires Duke to excavate ash at Asheville; however DEQ has not yet settled on a risk rating for the ash at Allen. At Allen and several other sites, Duke has been accused of using junk science to support its claim that certain ash pits are not polluting groundwater. DEQ is moving forward with its rating process anyway. SACE joined over 250 community members and advocates calling on DEQ to ensure that Duke properly cleans up its coal ash mess at Allen.

DEQ should be releasing its final ratings for all coal ash sites on May 18. We hope that DEQ is sincere when they say that public input will influence their rating decisions, because communities across the state are overwhelmingly calling for ash to be removed from unlined pits to safe, dry storage away from rivers and waterways.

Uncertain Future for Coal Ash “Clean Up” in Tennessee

In August 2015, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) released a Commissioner’s Order requiring TVA to investigate its coal ash storage facilities, and identify and clean up any coal ash contamination problems it discovers. If TDEC holds TVA’s feet to the fire, this order could result in meaningful clean up of coal ash in Tennessee.

However, after TDEC’s Order, but before the timeline for the actions required under the Order commenced, TVA embarked on an internal process to close many of its older coal ash storage sites quickly, in an apparent attempt to avoid more stringent requirements from the federal EPA coal ash rule. Ponds that close by April 17, 2018, are largely exempted from the requirements of the rule. TDEC gave TVA an extension on meeting the Order while it pursues this internal process.

Because TVA is a federal agency, it is subject to the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), including a detailed environmental analysis of impacts caused by a major federal action such as closing ash ponds. Accordingly, TVA produced “Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Closure of Coal Combustion Residuals Impoundments” that outlines the impacts of its proposed approach, compared with alternative approaches. Unfortunately, TVA’s ash pond closure approach favors leaving ash in place rather than removing it to dry, lined storage.

TVA fulfilled its duty under NEPA to engage the public by hosting a series of public meetings to hear concerns from communities located around the toxic coal ash pits that it is proposing to “close” in place. SACE staff attended two of these meetings to learn more about TVA’s plans around the Bull Run and Kingston coal ash sites, and share our concerns about TVA’s plans to store ash in place without liners underneath.

Advocates gather outside TVA's public meeting in Oak Ridge, TN to push TVA to store coal ash waste from its Bull Run plant safely.

SACE, along with a coalition of allies, also submitted technical comments and petition signatures from our members detailing how TVA is using the “fast-track” closure option under the federal coal ash rule to avoid more protective and expensive cleanup and closure methods. TVA is also relying on environmental impact analysis that was not made available to the public.

We’re hopeful that the process created through TDEC’s order will ultimately result in proper cleanup since the EIS makes it clear TVA has no intention of properly storing its coal ash voluntarily. Unfortunately, TDEC is only allowing the public to comment on TVA’s “closure” plans under the TDEC order once the plans are complete. That would be after TVA has already started to pursue the rushed cleanup outlined in its NEPA EIS documents.

We and a coalition of allies are requesting that TDEC bring all stakeholders together early in the Order compliance process, given TVA’s long history of downplaying evidence of contamination. We’ve also asked for more clarity on the current timeline of TDEC’s order. We’ve pointed out that TVA could begin “closing” pits by leaving ash in place prior to the process laid out in TDEC’s order. This scenario could result in TDEC requiring TVA to remove ash from pits TVA has already expended resources to “close,” adding unnecessary inefficiency and costs to the process.

The Stakes High, States Need to Get This Right

Public participation and vigilance have been instrumental in achieving the clean up we have in our region, and will be critical for securing more clean up moving forward. No single region in the country has as much coal ash or as many hazardous ash pit dams as the Southeast. Utilities throughout our region have profited from improper storage of coal ash for decades while putting our environment and public health at risk. South Carolina utilities are proving that excavating coal ash to lined, dry storage away from our rivers and waterways can be done, and that it improves groundwater quality, as common sense would lead us to expect.

It’s time for southeastern utilities to follow South Carolina’s lead and for regulators to push aggressively for proper clean up of coal ash waste. North Carolina’s DEQ should require Duke to remove ash from its unlined pits and store it safely, while ensuring that storage does not unfairly impact communities of color that have historically born the brunt of pollution. TDEC must not squander its opportunity to push TVA toward proper clean up.

While North Carolina and Tennessee still have a ways to go, several southeastern states are even further behind. Next week, we’ll review the state of coal ash clean-up in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida.

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