On the banks of South Carolina’s Waccamaw River, just west of Myrtle Beach, sit two large pits containing coal ash, the toxic byproducts of coal combustion. Such holding ponds pockmark most major waterways in the Southeast, and all too often they leach their contents into groundwater or spill into waterways.
But after some high-profile disasters and legal battles brought by citizens, the South’s coal ash problem is starting to get better, albeit slightly. Not long ago, the two Waccamaw pits held 1.3 million tons of slurry produced by the now defunct Grainger Generating Station. The state-owned utility Santee Cooper is now draining and dredging the coal ash to reduce the leaching of arsenic into the groundwater at levels 300 times the legal standard. Just midway through the process, groundwater contamination has already decreased by 60 percent to 90 percent.
Eventually the coal ash impoundments will become wetlands again and the ash will be recycled into cement, says Christine Ellis, deputy director for the Winyah Rivers Foundation. “Everyone, including the community, the city, the downstream users, and the utility, benefits from this solution,” she says.
The slurry removal is a result of a 2013 settlement between the utility and a number of conservation groups including the Waccamaw Riverkeeper, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Cases such as Grainger Station have become more common as the coal industry dwindles and the public holds utilities to state and federal environmental rules. So far, southern citizens have been able to force utilities to clean up their waste, though not always to a level that ensures clean water.
Coal combustion residuals are among the largest sources of industrial waste in the United States. According to the American Coal Ash Association, the industry produced about 140 million tons of the stuff in 2014. If not recycled, coal ash is usually disposed of in one of two ways: enclosed in dry landfills or dumped into deep pits.
The problem with placing ash in lagoons is there’s no barrier between the noxious sludgy mixture and the soil below. Pollutants like arsenic, mercury, lead, and selenium then seep into groundwater and rivers. And coal ash has become more toxic in recent years. Due to improved air quality standards, power plants have been scrubbing more contaminants out of their emissions. That’s great, but as a result, the ash left over at the power plant is more potent.
The first coal ash wake-up call occurred in 2008, after a dike failed at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. At some 1.1 billion gallons, the resulting coal ash spill was the largest the United States has ever seen. The hazardous slurry surged into the Emory and Clinch Rivers and spread across 300 hundred acres of land. The remediation costs have topped $1 billion so far. The third-largest coal ash spill took place in North Carolina in 2014 when a pond at a retired Duke Energy plant spilled more than 39,000 tons of coal ash (and about 27 million gallons of polluted water) into the Dan River. The contamination dispersed 70 miles downstream.
In response, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created the first federal regulation of coal ash, the Coal Combustion Residual Rule. Though it’s a step in the right direction, the law still designates coal ash as only a solid waste rather than a hazardous waste. In other words, coal ash is now regulated to about the same degree as banana peels.
Sampling a layer of coal ash over an inch thick from the surface of the Neuse River near Goldsboro, NC after a spill in October 2016. Courtesy Waterkeeper Alliance Inc.
“Our belief is that it is irresponsible, foolish, and really stupid to store millions of tons of industrial waste filled with water right next to waterways,” says Frank Holleman, senior attorney at SELC and the country’s preeminent coal ash expert. “Nobody would get a permit for that today, but that is what the utilities have done.” The only effective way to protect water and prevent structural failures is to place coal ash in dry landfills.
Small steps are being taken in this direction. Just five years ago, utilities touted coal ash lagoons as being “state of the art” and “safe.” As recently as 2013, Duke Energy lawyers dug in their heels, refusing to excavate any of the company’s ash impoundments. Today, as a result of legal action, Duke Energy is doing just that in 8 of its 14 sites in North Carolina.
As of November 16, the EPA’s rule required utilities to disclose how they will close their ash ponds, through excavation or cap-in-place measures. If the latter, hundreds of millions of tons of coal ash are likely to remain buried underground without further plans for removal.
Much of the progress in North Carolina is due to the Coal Ash Management Act (CAMA) of 2014, a state law that takes precedence over the more lenient federal standard. The state rule calls for utilities to fully excavate high- and medium-risk coal ash pits by the end of 2019 and 2024, respectively. Low-risk enclosures have to be closed, though not excavated, by 2029.
The state with the most progressive stance on coal ash is South Carolina, and again, this is primarily an outcome of litigation. The three main power utilities in South Carolina—South Carolina Electric and Gas (SCE&G), Duke Energy, and Santee Cooper—have each agreed to completely remove coal ash from unlined pits and either recycle it into cement or dispose of it in more secure structures. Next door, Georgia Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, announced in June that it would excavate the ash from 16 ponds and either move it to others, place it in landfills, or recycle it. The state’s remaining 13 ponds will be closed in place.
“We have seen a sea change in the attitude and recognition of utilities that leaving [ash pits] is something dangerous for them and their communities,” Holleman says. “All of this has occurred from citizen and community law enforcement and advocacy.”
Even so, there’s as much gray area in the legislation and cleanup efforts as there is ash still sitting in unlined pits near waterways. For example, though Georgia Power may remove the ash from more than half of its ponds, it could simply pile it into ponds designated for capping in place.
“These ponds are huge, right next to rivers, and sometimes have as much as 60 feet of ash beneath the groundwater table,” says Peter Harrison, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance. “It’s not like putting a cover on top of it is going to stop groundwater contamination. That’s a big concern.” Minutes after I spoke with Harrison, he boarded a small plane and went soaring into the sky to assess some ash pits. Progress on these toxic ponds may be occurring, but it’s still left to citizens to serve as watchdogs to this powerful industry.